I Applied For College In the Middle of a Pandemic. Here’s What I Suggest.
What I learned about myself, colleges, and being in “unprecedented times”
As I said my final farewell to high school, I wondered what I will remember from the last four years. The laughter in the hallways, stress over group projects, conversations that pushed me out of my comfort zone. With the haywire of the past 2 years slowly winding down, the “COVID” class of 2021 has set the sights on the future: college.
The college admissions process this year was different to say the least. Typical extracurriculars were canceled, leadership positions nullified, and grades changed to pass/fail. I found myself in that summer of 2020 watching everyone fall down the TikTok rabbithole, and like most of them, I lost my sense of time.
The urgency that fulfilled the hectic chaos of junior year and the pressure to stack the resume didn’t feel real anymore. High school never bored me — there was always something to be working on, figuring out, or stressing over. But the pandemic caused time to stand still for months, as the tick tock of our future slowly morphed into the TikTok that whittled the hours away.
Multiple friends of mine had gotten their SAT test dates canceled, and the postponement bled well past the encouraged deadline of testing of the spring of 2020. Then, colleges became test-optional. Now that our magnum opus wasn’t possible, the uncertainty in not knowing how we would be judged and compared by college admissions officers set in.
Even as overdramatic naive adolescents, we were aware that the American Dream to “pursue your passions and explore” was often tossed aside for numbers that could be compared: standardized testing. The baseline of GPA, SAT, and AP exams was what we used to compare ourselves. Extracurriculars were fickle, and we knew it. The YOLO that characterized 2017 was brought about for an encore.
College lists were slowly finalized as our senior year at Zoom High began. Virtual information sessions replaced college tours, and quite frankly, I’m not complaining. With hundreds of dollars saved from a lack of travel expenses, I found myself listening to the anecdotes of college admissions officers (AOs) and deans that I might not have ever had the chance to personally meet at orientation.
However, I quickly realized that my perception of a school that I never got to see in person was formed off a rudimentary bias: whether I liked the admissions officer giving the presentation. It was a binding binary of sorts: if the AO sounded scripted, the college was almost always rejected, and if the AO was personable, any red lights about the college were promptly ignored.
To this day, I wonder how many colleges I might have rejected based on fickle details like this. Obviously, one person or detail should not be enough to cause someone to reject a possible home, but overwhelmed by the thousands of colleges that I had to wade through, it was easier for me to categorize and delete without fully processing.
The teacher recommendation process during COVID can be summarized in a two word phrase: introverts unite! This year we avoided stumbling awkwardly through stilted small talk and beating around the bush before finally requesting a letter. Instead, a teacher is only one email away! Perhaps the phenomena reflects a larger tendency for younger generations to shy away from direct interpersonal conversation to favor hiding behind a screen. After all, rejection over email is much easier to move on from than rejection in person.
Personal. Demographic. Citizenship. Family. Coursework. Finances. So the list continues in the Profile section of the Common App or Coalition platforms. The pandemic hurt the personal income of many families this past six months due to unemployment or reallocation of resources. Would colleges care? This seemingly unknown entity that dictated our futures — would we just be another horror story from the Student Financial Services? The repercussions from an economic perspective of COVID-19 will certainly not disappear over the next four years while seniors and families have to pay for college.
College essays cued existential crises. Some platforms recommended linking the common ‘why major’ prompt response to the current chaos that is the coronavirus while others recommended otherwise, saying that if everyone was doing it, then you wouldn’t stand out.
Social activism suddenly seemed much more important given the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-Asian discrimination, and I wasn’t sure if I would seem complacent if I didn’t have an activism-related extracurricular. Many seniors faced their most trying times in the past couple of months, but should those trying times be capitalized upon for the sake of a four year guarantee? Time kept ticking away.
Lest this come across as the grumping and whiny of a hormonal teenager, there was a ray of sunshine that permeated through the gloom and doom of 2020. The hustle culture screeched to a halt, and we were given time to contemplate. I won’t romanticize: I’ve had senioritis since sophomore year and feel like all of senior year was really a gap year before college. But the hours of staring out the window, scrolling through our phones, listening to the news inform us of the latest catastrophe — it gave us a chance to figure out what we prioritized whether that be our health or spending time with our families.
After applications were sent out, life moved on. That second semester was filled, but quite frankly, I can’t remember why. Perhaps scholarships, promposals, random assignments, and nostalgic conversations. It wasn’t necessarily that the days flew by, but the ‘new normal’ we had settled into felt so mundane that nothing jumped out at us.
Around late March and early April, college decisions came out, and I missed not seeing the visceral reactions of startled screams in the hallways or sobbing in happiness in bathrooms with friends. Figuring out who got into the Ivies felt like an extended game of Telephone with results being told to one person and traveling to people five friend groups away.
Senior year still doesn’t feel real. But the closure I get from seeing old friends and catching up with them at award ceremonies, Baccalaureates, and graduation practices reminds me that this chapter was meant to close whether a pandemic struck it or not. The melancholy of these past two years has been rendered by the joy I try to find in each day.
I officially committed to my college and home for the next four years (Hook ‘em!), and my little corner of the world is slowly going back to pre pandemic conditions. In a way, perhaps COVID provided a prequel to our farewells, but the memories I have made will continue to guide me forward.