Applying to College During Covid

Cameron Mays '21

With the first semester of this school year coming to a close, that means most seniors are officially done applying to colleges. The process started all the way back in the summer for most people, and although it was different because of Covid-19, the end result was the same; seniors hopeful to start the next portion of their lives sent a snapshot of their last four years to college admissions offices all over the country in the hopes of being given the chance to attend that school for the next four years.


When current seniors were sent home last March, they were in the middle of their junior year, arguably the most important year in highschool in terms of applying to college. Besides school work and extracurricular activities, most were at least thinking about what colleges they liked and what they wanted to major in once at college. However, the changes made to the college admissions process were significant and forced many current seniors to rethink some of their plans for the process. 


Standardized tests, the ACT and SAT, were one of the most notable differences in how seniors applied to colleges this year versus in years past. With stay-at-home orders in New Jersey, there was virtually no ability for students to take standardized tests in state from March until June[1]. Even then, there was an enormous shortage of testing sites, so much so that many students had to make plans to take the test in other states, or apply to college test optional. When the ACT website opened in early September, the waiting line to get into the website was hours long, causing students to take sites that were hours away or in different states.


As a direct result of the inability to take standardized tests, the amount of test optional colleges increased from 1,070 to 1,686, and 68 colleges went test blind, meaning that they did not accept any standardized tests[2]. It also appears that most of those colleges will remain test optional, and the University of California system is going to drop ACT/SAT all together and develop their own test[3].


It goes without saying that visiting colleges was, and still is, not an option. Because of this, colleges have started frequent online events that prospective students can attend. Events include virtual campus tours, information sessions, question and answer presentations, and one-on-one events with current university students or admission officers. While these all existed to some degree before the pandemic, their popularity exploded out of necessity, and it is likely that most online programs will remain options moving forward.


Another effect of the pandemic is that the number of people applying to college is down across the board by almost 8% as of December[4], and it is expected that the data will continue to show less college applicants overal. However, the number of applications that top colleges are receiving is higher than ever. Harvard saw an increase of 57% for early action applications which were due November 1st. Yale early action increased by 38%[5]. NYU increased by over 20% and hit 100,000 applications for the first time[6], while UCLA increased by 28% to almost 140,000 applications[7]. So the question is: why are there huge increases in applicants to certain colleges, while the overall number of people applying is down?


A reason thought to explain why total college applicants are down is fairly obvious: the pandemic. With many people still out of work or on reduced hours, many seniors are having a tough time coming up with the money to enroll, meaning they do not even apply[8]. This does not mean that those students will never go to college, though. They may take one or two years off and apply in the future, which could then increase numbers in the coming years.


Still, top colleges are seeing more applications than ever, and the reason for that may be less clear-cut. A possible explanation is the previously discussed test optional situation for a large amount of colleges. When standardized tests were required, people that had competitive applications but low test scores were not as likely to apply to top colleges, since their test scores would undermine their entire application. Now, with the option to apply without submitting test scores, students that have competitive applications can simply not send their test scores, and have a better chance of being accepted. Additionally, with the uncertainty of what is going to happen next, there may be many students that decide it is better to “shotgun”, or apply to a large number of colleges (usually over 20), so they can possibly maximize their chances of being admitted to many colleges. This would allow them many options even if some do not work out because of financial or other reasons.


While there could be hundreds of other reasons that are more specific to individual students, these are just some of the most common thoughts surrounding the number of applicants to colleges this year. As previously mentioned, the numbers this year are not necessarily indicative of the future. Overall it is impossible to know what the effect the pandemic will have on the future of college admissions.


For all seniors that are nervous about what is going to happen to you, try not to stress. In all likelihood, you will end up at a school that is right for you and you will have a great college experience. Control what you can control and know that everyone else is in the same situation as you. Good luck and enjoy the rest of the year!