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Articles / Applying to College / Dealing With Pandemic-Enhanced Admissions Stress

Dec. 15, 2020

Dealing With Pandemic-Enhanced Admissions Stress

Dealing With Pandemic-Enhanced Admissions Stress

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Lots of articles have been written about applying to college during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the more prominent issues has been standardized testing. Test centers have been closed and their associated test administrations have not happened, keeping high school seniors from getting the scores they need.


In response to test cancelations, many colleges have gone test optional, which gave (and currently gives) applicants a safe harbor if they were/are unable to sit for an SAT, Subject Test or ACT. I detailed this situation in a recent post. Consequently, the dislocations and resulting stress caused by the pandemic have been more or less equally distributed among colleges, applicants and the testing industry.

I say "more or less" for a reason. Applicants typically fall into the "more" stress category. As I think back and recall my own admissions quest, and especially those of my children, the stresses my daughter, son and I experienced seem relatively trivial compared to what's going on today.

Stressors Pile up This Year

Applying to college is one of the great milestones in life. Of course, attending, experiencing and graduating from college is an even greater milestone, but first you have to get it. One analogous comparison might be that applying to college during "normal" times is like taking a driver's license test drive with the test center "judge" sitting next to you, watching everything you do. "Okay, now drive over there and parallel park between those two cars." Yikes. That's tough enough.

Today, thanks to the coronavirus, that same driver's test (college application process) is essentially the same, except roaming restlessly the back seat of your car is a hungry 600-pound polar bear who occasionally licks your neck, mainly while you're parallel parking. The polar bear in my analogy is COVID-19 and all that it inspires: uncertainty, danger, nervousness, fear, distraction, upset routines, loss of focus, etc. In other words, stress.

If you have been following the College Confidential discussion forums at all, or if you know a high school senior who has applied Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA), you may have seen a flashing red light on their stress alarm. I follow the forum quite closely and what I see there is at times sad.

In a sense, it's not unlike the Academy Awards. The applicants are the actors, directors, composers, etc. and the colleges are, appropriately, the Academy. The applicant's high school career acts as his or her latest motion picture work and decision day is the night of the big gala, when the envelopes are opened in the form of applicant-portal emails and, in a limited number of cases, actual, physical, "fat" envelopes.

Since it's now mid-December, many of you ED/EA applicants have already received your decisions of either denial or acceptance. Some of you may have been deferred to the Regular Decision (RD) pool this coming spring. Being deferred can bump your stress meter farther into the red because the uncertainty factor has so much fallout if that deferral came from your first-choice school.

I've written about the sharp drop in college applicants so far this year. You may be one of those high school seniors choosing to wait and explore your RD options, which means that you'll be quite busy over the year-end break. If that's your situation, your stress level may be building like a volcano capped with a lava dome, or similar to that student driver trying to parallel park with a polar bear passenger.

Virtual Learning Weighs on Some Students

In researching this topic, I found an article that articulates a student's experiences during this pandemic-tainted admissions season. Boston NPR station WBUR, in its recent story Stress And Confusion: How COVID-19 Is Complicating College Applications by Carrie Jung, spoke with a student about the impact of the coronavirus on her college process.

Pioneer Valley Regional School senior Sarah Wyngowski managed to take the SAT once this fall. But her score wasn't as good as she'd hoped.

"I did not put my test scores into my college applications because I don't think they represented my abilities to the best that they could have been," Wyngowski said.

Wyngowski thinks the quick pivot to remote learning that her western Massachusetts school made last spring played a big role in her score.

"At first, they weren't really prepared — as most schools weren't prepared — since they weren't expecting anything like this," she explained. "And I feel like I kind of lost a lot of learning that would help me in the SAT."

From a stress perspective, the sudden switch to virtual learning is a stress factor for most students. Also, the trickle down from parental stress has provided a double dose for school students who have reestablished their classrooms in their bedrooms.

Working parents were suddenly faced with childcare complications when their sons and daughters took up daytime schooling at home. This pressure has increased the stress load for many high schoolers who have been simultaneously dealing with class requirements, standardized testing and college admissions, a situation similar to juggling bowling balls and chainsaws (while the chainsaws are running).

Challenges accessing the test faced by students like Wyngowski are part of the reason more colleges and universities went test optional for this admissions cycle. More than 1,600 U.S. colleges dropped their requirement for students to take the SAT or ACT this year, according to Fair Test, an organization that's critical of standardized testing.

Wyngowski is glad that so many schools are test optional this year, but she still can't seem to shake the idea that choosing not to submit an SAT score could put her at a disadvantage.

"I am very stressed about whether or not that will affect my application decision," she said

School counselors also have been heavily affected by the dislocation factor. It's one thing to be able to flag down a student in the school hallway for a quick informal check on how their application process is going and something else altogether to be connected only by the internet.

"Without physically being together. It's so hard to know what's happening for these kids and if they're OK," said Johanna Smith, a counselor at the Lynn Vocational and Technical High School. "I'm concerned about students being able to keep their grades up for their applications and for themselves."

Smith's work load also makes it hard to feel like she's giving every student the attention they need. She has about 370 high school students, which is 120 students more than what the American School Counselor Association recommends.

To fill in the gaps, Smith is turning to platforms like Instagram and TikTok, where she posts videos like this one reminding students to make sure the name on their school records matches the name on their scholarship applications

Outcomes on the Horizon for Many Students

The silver bullet for all this stress may be the hope we have in the vaccine that the FDA approved this past week. One can only hope. However, beyond dealing with the stress of the application process itself, you may encounter a different kind of stress when it comes to outcomes. Here are a few of my thoughts about that.

If you were deferred from Early Action or Early Decision, your final decision will come in late March or early April. If you are wait-listed, then you'll enter a kind of uncertain purgatory. You may be able to find out where you stand on the list, if the school ranks it, or how many are on it. if you choose to remain on the list, you'll have to enroll somewhere else before May 1 or whatever the enrollment deadline turns out to be in the spring.

Whatever you do, don't be so focused on the waitlist that you forget about enrolling. If you think your admissions process is/was stressful, I hope you don't have to experience missing an enrollment deadline!

Every mid-December, I think about one particularly stressed College Confidential forum member who said, "... the fact that there's less than a day till I find out if my dreams have been crushed or have become a reality is FREAKING ME OUT!" Back seat polar bears can cause reactions like that, so keep your eyes on the road.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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