Cedar Shoals seniors have a great deal on their plate this year. Amidst the virtual learning environment, with its Zoom extracurriculars and classes, social distanced sports practices and Google Classroom submissions, many have completed the college application process from home.
Those applying to highly competitive colleges face a dauntingly unprecedented environment. Top universities’ acceptances rates are trending lower than ever. In their most competitive early admissions season yet, Harvard University accepted just 747 of 10,086 applicants – a drop from 13.9% to 7.4%. Other Ivy League schools’ early acceptances are falling at similar rates.
Correspondingly, the University of Georgia saw a 27% increase in early action applicants this season. At Cedar, first-year college counselor Eryka Johnson says her students are populating applicant pools in higher numbers.
“Students are applying to a lot more. Usually, I recommend three. We have tons of students who have applied to five or 10 or more. We have a handful of students who are in the 20s and 30s, applying because they can and to have options,” Johnson said.
More applicants means less spots, fostering a highly competitive environment that, coupled with the pandemic’s challenges, has made for a rigorous application process.
However, universities have attempted to adapt their admissions process to aid students while in cooperation with COVID-19. Tours, informational sessions and counseling are on a digital platform. Many institutions—including the entire university system of Georgia—have waived testing requirements, making SAT and ACT scores optional. The SAT itself has permanently dropped its essay portion and subject tests.
Previous to announcements of test-optional admissions, the SAT panic was intense. Senior Amanda Wise, who will attend the University of Georgia as a biology major with intent to become a veterinarian or veterinary technician, felt the pressure.
“I’ve only taken the SAT once, in November. It was hard, due to the test being constantly pushed back and cancelled,” Wise said. “Not only were seniors quickly trying to get their test taken but juniors were trying to get their spots as well. It was very hard to find a time. You had to be right on top of it.”
Wise decided not to submit test scores.
Senior Autumn Jones also struggled to take the SAT. Jones has not committed to a school yet, but of the 22 she applied to, her top three are the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Duke University and Auburn University. She intends to major in business mathematics or finances to become a financial advisor or actuary.
“My plan was to take it once in the spring, get my scores back and I’d have enough time to prepare to take it again in the fall if I needed to,” Jones said. “But it was like, I got one shot in the fall, and whatever happens happens.”
Jones decided to submit her one SAT score for half of the colleges she applied to. She reports that of the acceptances she’s received, her trial and error has been consistent with colleges’ promises to not take lack of test scores into consideration.
“It was an experiment. I wanted to see if not knowing how I performed on a big test would affect my application. For the schools I’ve received an admission decision for I was accepted without scores, so I think it’s pretty fluid, I think they’re doing well in the application process,” Jones said.
Johnson says that optional testing has been the pandemic’s blessing in disguise for many students.
“The most beneficial piece of this pandemic is having a large number of institutions waive their testing requirements,” Johnson said. “Oftentimes, a barrier for students is having to meet those minimum test scores for the ACT and SAT. Now since scores are optional, that means as long as students have that 2.0 GPA, which most of our students do, college is a lot more attainable.”
However, many scholarships still require test scores. Wise will retake the SAT and ACT to be eligible for the Zell Miller scholarship, and Jones will submit her SAT score for scholarships this spring. Applying for other forms of financial aid—primarily Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA—has been more difficult because of the pandemic. Jones had to submit her FAFSA late, reducing her chances of receiving more aid.
“Getting financial aid this year, it’s definitely been tough. Even though the SAT and ACT scores being waived gives a lot more students the option to go to schools that they may not have been able to go to previously, there’s no additional funding to help them afford that school,” Johnson said.
Senior Tykerius Monford decided not to submit his one ACT or SAT score. He will attend Brown University in the fall, having applied with the QuestBridge program from which he received a full scholarship. Monford said one of his biggest challenges, besides limited standardized testing, has been canceled extracurricular activities.
“I had planned to intern at a few places last summer. Because of COVID, obviously that was not allowed. All of the summer programs I had applied to did not happen. Those are things on my resume I’ve missed because of COVID, and along with clubs that didn’t wrap up and were abruptly cut off,” Monford said.
A future accounting major, Ben Micheal is currently considering attending either the University of Alabama or University of Michigan. He says his resume suffered from COVID-19 restrictions.
“The fact that the baseball season was canceled last year, or stopped in the middle, hampered my development. COVID also made it harder to get a job. I wasn’t sure what’s safe and what’s not safe,” Micheal said.
Monford and Micheal are grateful to have still gotten to cheer and play baseball this year, respectively.
For other students who have missed out this year—on work, extracurriculars or sports opportunities—or have seen a drop in grades, the Common Application added an essay prompt tailored to them.
“Students can include a short response saying how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic. If there was a sudden drop in grades, or a sudden drop in involvement, or any kind of pieces of the application the student might feel a little bit insecure about, they had an opportunity to explain that,” Johnson explained.
Micheal used the essay prompt, writing about baseball cancellations, lack of work opportunities and the effect of virtual school on his engagement and motivation in the classroom.
COVID-19’s restrictions range from the many resume-building components of the admissions process to a pinnacle decision-making experience. Tours are cancelled. Although functional, the virtual tour experience is not preferred to an actual campus visit.
Monford has not yet been to Brown. The campus is beautiful, he says, especially in the fall, but he wonders about the genuineness of virtual tours.
“Virtual tours help to an extent,” Monford said. “But I don’t think you can truly grasp the culture and the feel of the campus without being there in person.”
Jones participated in two virtual tours with UNC Charlotte, one of her top three schools, and felt similarly to Monford.
“I didn’t really get to see the social aspect of the school: the students and how they interact on the campus. I think that’s what I’m missing,” Jones said.
To help, Cedar’s counseling department has been connecting students with virtual tours and admissions events.
“In the beginning of the year, virtual tours were super popular. Students were loving them. But then as we went through there was less and less participation. Our admissions counselors all say the same thing, every school they go to now they’ll talk to maybe one student, which is really awesome to have that one on one connection with one student, but then it’s harder when there’s students that don’t really know about the opportunities that are available to them,” Johnson said.
Despite struggling to garner engagement, the virtual tours are still advantageous, Johnson said. She encourages students to use them in their research.
“Once you’re there, once students are in the room, I think the presentations are still really helpful,” Johnson said. “You can get a lot of information, but at the same time it is different than walking on a campus if we were to do the field trip tours.”
The effects of this year’s challenges will continue, Johnson says. Albeit in a likelier position to experience their senior year inside of real classrooms, juniors haven’t gotten the preparation they need to be ready to start the admissions process.
“Typically, in the spring semester, I would transition to supporting the juniors more and helping them prepare for everything that’s going to happen throughout their senior year,” Johnson said. “But with the pandemic, when our current seniors were juniors, they didn’t get that opportunity. There’s a lot of information they missed out on and a lot of prep that they didn’t get. It’s been a matter of just trying to catch them up and make sure they’re set to get out the door. And unfortunately, that means there’s less time to prepare juniors.”