Applying to college during a pandemic

The college application process, which is normally known for its unchanging routines, has been turned upside down in the year of a pandemic. Everything from the basics of visiting a college campus to taking standardized tests have been changed, and resources at Dana Hall are changing with it.

One of the first changes that was put into place last spring was the shift to online college counseling. While college counselors and students can no longer meet in person, they have set up online calendars and Zoom links to set up virtual meetings. 

Director of College Counseling Ms. Cara Hanig notes that “Every aspect of this process has been impacted in some way, shape, or form. But the biggest impact that I am hearing from current seniors is the lack of ability to go visit a school.” Traditionally visiting college campuses has been an integral part for high school seniors deciding on the school that is the right fit for them; however, with this opportunity no longer available, Ms. Hanig has noticed it has made it difficult for this year’s seniors to build college lists. She notes that “There is something fundamental about being able to go on a campus and picture yourself in that space, and not having that has been really hard.” 

This has held true for Megan Wong ‘21, who is handling the added difficulty of applying to American colleges from Hong Kong. Speaking as an international student, she says, “I think that the fact that we (international students or even local students) are not able to go on-campus for tours really affects this college process the most. If I was able to go on tours on the actual college campus, I could actually know more about the school and feel the atmosphere and decide whether or not I want to go there. Now, all colleges seem the same to me, which makes it hard to come up with a list.”

In place of in-person college visits, colleges have been offering more virtual visit opportunities. Ms. Hanig recalls, “Before this year, maybe 30% of schools had virtual tours. But now, every single school has online information sessions, virtual tours, and student panels. The offerings across the student board were just so much richer.”  

But despite the influx of virtual opportunities, Emily Gardner ‘21 reflects, “Everyone always talks about a gut feeling you get when you’re actually on campus somewhere and feeling the real vibe, and not being able to experience that definitely makes figuring out where to apply harder.” With the addition of online resources, Emily notes, “Unfortunately I have found myself disliking certain schools just because their online resources aren’t as engaging as others. Every school has put a lot of effort into trying to allow us to understand their institution, but it’s very difficult to make such a big decision simply just through your computer screen.” 

In addition to the adjustments made to college visits, standardized testing has also drastically been affected. Limited testing opportunities have been available to students because of concerns of health and safety, which led to the cancellation of the May and June SAT and cancellations of the ACT from April through September. This has resulted in most U.S. colleges transitioning to test optional for the 2020-2021 application cycle. Dana Hall provided opportunities for students to take the SAT in August, September, and October as well as the ACT in October. As Dana Hall is a closed testing site, registration for these tests have only been made available to Dana students. 

Dana students who cannot return to Dana to take the test and may not be able to find a testing site near them wonder: Many colleges have moved to be “test optional,” but are the tests truly optional? Ms. Hanig explains that the answer to this question is not all that simple. She mentions that many schools are genuine when they say they are test optional; other schools have said that, while they are test optional, scores are important to them, and anyone who can submit scores should. One effective strategy to determine how important test scores are to colleges is to look at their press releases. Often, the expectations of schools are reflected in the wording of their press releases. She concludes, “As much as I would like to say they don’t matter, some schools have made it clear that they want test scores if they can be submitted.”

This poses another challenge. As there are still schools that would prefer to see test scores submitted with applications, there becomes the added difficulty of finding testing available. Alex Dent ‘21 notes, “standardized testing was another challenge because meeting with a tutor was harder than normal by making appointments. Also the ACT kept getting canceled for me, and eventually they didn’t even come available till after an application due date.” 

Megan mentions, “I’m glad that the COVID situation in Hong Kong is not that serious, so none of the test centers got canceled. However, I think that the competition to take the test is very high because everyone wants to take it.”

Molly Han ‘21, residing in China, also notes, “ I feel like I never have enough time and energy to focus on college essays, classes, and testing. [Testing] especially because I can’t take the SAT in China and so I don’t even have scores, which is a big worry.” 

Additionally, each fall the senior class is given the added resource of special Evening Writing Labs specifically intended for seniors to work on college writing. Dr. Karen Keely explains, ““Dr. Bucci and I meet with students every Wednesday 7-10 pm. We work on the Common Application, writing supplements, and just any aspect of the college application involves writing. People can bring drafts, completed pieces, or even just brainstorm ideas before starting.” 

Alex mentions, “Writing labs have been very helpful. It’s nice to know that a lot of any teachers can help and support me through the writing that we have to do for college, whether that be a supplement or an essay even. The college process has already been so unique compared to past years, it’s nice to know the support is still there.”   

However, this year there has also been the concern that international students would not be able to use these resources because of the time difference. A solution that Dana Hall has found is by implementing more Writing Lab hours 6:00-8:00am in order to provide international students with the opportunity to meet with teachers as well. 

Another resource that is available to seniors are virtual college representative visits. During normal times, representatives from colleges from all over the country travel to Dana Hall in person as a resource for seniors to get to know each institution better. During the pandemic, instead of coming to campus in person, representatives are interacting with Dana Hall seniors in Zoom visits. Maggie Noone ‘21 notes, “They are helpful to learn more about the school and get to know the person who is reading your application. It is also a helpful way that you can show your interest to a school if you weren’t able to visit the campus in person. Some virtual representative visits I attended were even 1-on-1 which was nice because it allowed me to feel as if the visit was more personalized.” 

Isabel Sullivan helped with reporting for this article. 

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