Nina Simon signed up for every SAT examination from March through June.
She studied for the tests, only to receive a series of disappointing emails: each one was canceled amid coronavirus fears. So the Grosse Pointe South High School senior registered for the August, September, October, and November tests, too.
But it’s uncertain whether Simon will be able to take a standardized test at all before she applies to college this fall.
“The way things are looking right now, everything is unknown,” she said. “From here on, we know nothing.”
The college admissions process is ordinarily stressful for the country’s high school seniors. Students pour their hearts into personal essays, distill extracurricular passions into lists and sit for high-stakes tests. Applications, transcripts and recommendation letters flow into campus file rooms for an arcane review. Future-defining decisions appear months later.
But this year, applicants and evaluators alike have to find their way as the pandemic uproots the process.
Amanda Miller, director of college counseling at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, said the long-awaited rite of passage now feels different from what families expected, amplifying uncertainties about the process.
“That admissions process that they’ve been researching and they’ve been thinking about — for some students since the beginning of their high school career — now looks very different a month or two before they’re actually going to start submitting those applications,” Miller said.
Mercy High School counselor Holly Markiecki-Bennetts said she is especially concerned about students who need extra support navigating the process.
Lea Caldwell, a senior at Mercy who lives on Detroit’s east side and will be the first in her family to attend college, said although her counselor has been a “wonderful” resource, simply being away from school made it harder to move forward.
“I feel like missing school hindered us from making a solid plan on … our next steps in the college application process,” Caldwell said.
Though many universities are extending their application deadlines, pandemic-related concerns may already be throwing some students off track. Applications for federal student aid have dipped nearly 4% since last year, according to an analysis by the Associated Press — a sign that some families might be reconsidering the value of higher education altogether.
Flint Southwestern Classical Academy college adviser Marjai Kamara said the coronavirus crisis is exacerbating preexisting obstacles for students who are part of demographic groups that are less likely to attend college in the first place. In the spring, the school had to cancel an annual college fair as well as field trips focused on career exploration.
“I definitely know it’s been impacting students’ decision — whether it’s careers, or whether it’s doing a four-year institution or not,” Kamara said. “Or even going to work. Some families might have lost jobs.”
A year without tests, awards
As students like Simon experience frustrating SAT and ACT cancellations, many colleges nationwide have committed to a test-optional admissions review this year. Such policies can vary subtly by school, making it all the more important that applicants carefully research requirements.
For example, a university might ask for scores from already-taken exams but excuse the mandate if COVID-19 has precluded students from testing at all. In some cases, the results are still necessary to compete for merit scholarships.
Northern Michigan University is experimenting with a test-blind approach that entirely strikes standardized test scores from consideration.
Michigan State University undergraduate admissions director John Ambrose said that when test scores are unavailable, admissions readers in his office will take a closer look at other facets of the application as part of a holistic review: grades, rigor of coursework, personal statements, and even the on-campus success of MSU students who attended a given applicant’s high school.
When activities like track meets and choral festivals came to a halt in March, many students lost final opportunities to show off special talents before applying to college.
Grand Rapids Christian High School senior Jordyn Billiau — who plans to study theatre and fine arts — said her six-person play was canceled after the cast had already started memorizing the script. Her school called off an end-of-year award show, and summer programs at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre could no longer happen in person.
“We don’t get to put those things on our resumes and our applications,” Billiau said. “Now going into the fall as a senior, I want to be doing theatre and improv and those things, but it’s difficult considering the limits on how many people we can have, and just social distancing in general.”
‘Trust the process’
Markiecki-Bennetts said she is encouraging her students to focus on what they can control about the process. The personal essays, she says, allow applicants to showcase who they are and define themselves beyond COVID-19.
This year, the Common App, a standardized application form accepted by more than 900 educational institutions, includes an optional question about extenuating circumstances related to the pandemic.
Applicants can dedicate up to 250 words to discussing how the public health crisis has affected their well-being and ability to engage with opportunities relevant to college admissions. College counselors will have a similar opportunity to tell admissions staff how grading policies, class offerings, or course delivery shifted at their schools.
Ambrose said he expects particularly impressive stories will come from students who persevere through the turmoil and find creative ways to stay engaged with their communities.
“Leaders look for those opportunities to lead, and followers will wait for somebody to ask them to follow,” Ambrose said.
Getting a coveted acceptance letter, however, is only one part of the process. High school seniors will also need to decide on which postsecondary institutions match their interests and aspirations.
Given uncertainty about the long-term course of the pandemic, universities might see an uptick in interest from local students who appreciate the comfort of attending classes close to home. And Miller advises this year’s applicants to add a “financial safety school” to their college lists in case of a substantial shift in family income.
Despite a slate of changes, the same kinds of qualifications and considerations remain important to universities this fall, Miller said.
“Even though it looks different on the surface, at the core, it is still the same process,” Miller said. “I always tell my students to trust the process.”
Caldwell isn't daunted.
“The future may be unprecedented, but I’m prepared to tackle it,” she said.