For seniors, the arrival of Fall and Winter brings with it the arduous process of selecting and applying to colleges. The annual stress onset by the autumnal months when students scramble to collect their recommendations, write their personal essays, participate in extracurricular activities, all while maintaining good grades has been amplified this year by the pandemic. As coronavirus swept across the globe, many institutions were forced to adapt and change, and the college application process was no exception. This year, the graduating class of 2021 is getting a taste of these new adaptations, as universities and colleges across the country are throwing out testing requirements, locking campuses down and shutting visiting students out, high schools are changing their grading system, and more.
When life as we knew it screeched to a halt in the spring of 2020, the seemingly indispensable practices held sacred to the college selection and admissions process were synonymously put on hold. With the college sightseeing trips canceled, the hellish SAT/ACT test taking aborted, and grade scales changing, students and higher education institutions alike were left to find their own ways of standing out. And while the temporary or permanent ridding of standardized testing seemed like a loss for colleges, this was seen as a breath of fresh air for high schoolers. One Ingraham senior aptly described this change as “lowkey hella nice.” Not only did it liberate some of the anxiety that adds to the intense academic climate of junior and senior year, but it attempts to decrease some of the privilege bias that college admissions are infamously known for. There have always been critiques about the practice of standardized testing, as it has been well reasoned that these tests are not an accurate or fair measure of educational effectiveness or student performance; this change was warmly welcomed by the high school community. In addition to the standardized testing adjustment, students were faced with grade scales changing in light of the effects of online learning. For many students in the graduating class of 2021, the way schools and school districts went about teaching, testing, and grading drastically changed in the spring of 2020. The grading policies in response to coronavirus varied across the country. While some schools cut down their grading scales from the standard 100 point system to a 50 or even 10 point system, others opted for pass/fail grades, and some schools, Ingraham and the Seattle Public School district included, elected for grade scales where the only options are A through C- or “Incomplete.” In the one year in high school seen as most quintessential for college applications, this was perhaps the most intangible change for applicants.
On top of the more established practices of standardized testing and grade policies, some of the informal changes applicants were faced with this year included the cancelation of college tours, not being able to participate in extracurriculars, the writing process of college essays, and more. Rounding the corner of March 2020 and heading into spring and summer break, many students and families had plans to take trips to go look at colleges. This usually entails a tour of the campus, sightseeing around town, and ultimately trying to get a feel for if you can see yourself at that school for four years. Even before the pandemic, the opportunity to see the school and its geography in person was a privilege. In many instances, the takeaways from seeing a college in person is more valuable than any information you could get online, and gives a great advantage for students who are able to afford that experience. However this year, with a majority of college campuses locking down and shutting visiting students out, no one is able to visit colleges, serving as something of an equalizer. A common theme among students applying for college this year seemed to be missing out on opportunities to stand out. This year, applicants had to make do without almost 6 months worth of school sports, clubs, volunteering, and other extracurriculars. Not only was this a blow to morale, as extracurricular activities often serve as an escape for many students, but looking through a more pragmatic perspective, students were also missing out on months of activities that would set them apart from other applicants. Among the long list of things that changed this year due to covid was the college essay writing process. The typical writing process for an applicant on a normal year goes a little something like this: You think about how much time you have to write essays over the summer; you try to think of things that make you unique and panic when you suddenly forget everything you’ve done during your high school career, then comes the consultation of peers to see what they’re writing about in a last attempt to get some inspiration; and if you’re lucky, you seek some last minute professional help. Some words of wisdom from an essay writing workshop I found particularly enlightening, “This year ‘How Quarantine Changed Me’ has been inducted into the Most Unoriginal College Essays Hall of Fame. Say something authentic.” Some notable adaptations to this writing process was having to talk to peers over FaceTime or Zoom, and meeting with writing coaches virtually. And as many students across the country have experienced, some aspects of learning and collaborating can get lost in translation when meeting online. On the bright side however, quarantine has given students time for the reflection and rumination necessary to write thoughtful essays. Seniors, you don’t need me to tell you that we’re living through “unprecedented times” and that this year has been unconventional in almost every way. But everyone needs a reminder once in a while that there have been plenty of unexpected positives, and this experience is only making us stronger!