COVID-19’s impact on the Class of 2021’s college application process

COVID-19's impact on the Class of 2021’s college application process

As National College Decision Day on May 1 quickly approaches, many Class of 2021 high schoolers are finding it difficult to make a final college choice.
Published: April 29, 2021 | Updated: April 30th, 2021 at 1:13 pm
Nottingham High School senior Ilaria Terrinoni will attend Syracuse University in the fall to study biotechnology and international business.
Nottingham High School senior Ilaria Terrinoni will attend Syracuse University in the fall to study biotechnology and international business.

As May 1, National College Decision Day, quickly approaches, many students in the Class of 2021 are finding it difficult to make a final choice about where they will spend the next four years.

Though some colleges extended their decision deadlines, students are feeling overwhelming pressure because COVID interfered – and is still interfering – with their college application process. Schools like Nottingham High School in the Syracuse City School District are even experiencing a decline in college-bound seniors due to the pandemic.

Nottingham counselor Mark Mason said the high school had a 10 to 15% drop in students applying to college because many students were concerned about what their college experience would look like in the fall and couldn’t visit any schools in person. As students continue to learn remotely, he said some seniors did not have the added motivation and guidance from teachers and counselors to stay ahead of deadlines.

“They need an extra push,” Mason said. “We’ve been trying to send out ongoing emails, but students are not usually driven by email and text messages and things like that.”

Because she put off the process over the summer, Nottingham senior Marissa Carello was not able to apply early decision or early action to any schools like she’d hoped.

“I was just not in the normal, like heading into senior year my mental space was not right just because my junior year was completely cut short,” Carello said. “I just mentally wasn’t prepared for this year.”

However, students like Ilaria Terrinoni, a Nottingham senior, used the pandemic to their advantage when applying to schools.

“I think COVID overall weirdly helped me a little bit with just being able to carve time out for myself,” Terrinoni said. Terrinoni spent more time perfecting her college essays when she would have been playing soccer, which was canceled this fall.

Terrinoni applied to colleges and universities close to the Syracuse area, like the State University of New York, Oswego, and Colgate University. With the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, Terrinoni wants to stay close to her immediate family and grandparents, who have health issues.

“I didn’t want to bring anything back home if I left,” she said. In a normal year, Terrinoni said she would have considered more schools in places further away, like Boston or Vermont, but, this fall, Terrinoni will attend Syracuse University to study biotechnology and international business.

Many colleges and universities are seeing a decline in applicants nationwide. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment rates decreased by 4.5% this year. The Common App also met similar circumstances, with undergraduate applications decreasing to 2% in December.

Because in-person college visits were scarce this year, Nottingham High School senior Marissa Carello is struggling to decide where she will attend school in the fall.
Because in-person college visits were scarce this year, Nottingham High School senior Marissa Carello is struggling to decide where she will attend school in the fall.

At Nottingham, Terrinoni said some of her peers faced numerous challenges with virtual learning, leading to a drop in their grades. With more students not graduating or not academically able to apply to more selective and top-tier schools, Terrinoni said fewer students in her grade have decided to go to college than what could have been during a normal year.

Smaller schools faced lower application rates this year, including SUNY schools, which had 14% fewer applicants, according to The New York Times. However, Peter Hagan, director of admissions at Syracuse University, said applications rose almost 25% compared to last year. Similarly, larger schools like Harvard University had a 42% increase in applicants, while Colgate University had a 103% increase, The New York Times said.

Larger schools experienced this increase because a majority of colleges and universities offered applications test-optional, meaning students could apply to schools without having completed standardized tests like the SATs or ACTs. Because most exams were canceled this year due to COVID, the National Association for College Admission Counseling said over 1,450 U.S. colleges and universities adopted the policy.

“If a student in the past, had the grades without the scores, they might have been reluctant to apply to a school that they were unlikely to get into because of the school’s testing profile,” Hagan said. “But with test-optional, it was harder to predict admission, and those students I think had a wider net by applying to more schools.”

The test-optional policy helped students like Terrinoni because she does not typically perform well in a testing environment.

“I wanted to make sure that I had the best chance of getting into whatever school I ended up applying to, so I just kind of wanted them to take my grades to account for that, [instead of] like a score for a test that really doesn’t influence much,” Terrinoni said.

Unlike last year’s senior class, who finished their college application process before the pandemic heightened, the Class of 2021 was not able to attend most in-person college tours, which caused students to apply to schools they were already familiar with, Mason said.

“Students shied away from things that were unknown, just like anyone would,” Mason said.

Without seeing any colleges in person, Carello said she is still struggling to commit to a college by May 1.

“I’ve been attending virtual tours and information sessions and all that, and it’s helpful to a degree, but I feel like whenever people are talking about their school, they’re always like ‘I visited and I just knew, like, I just felt right,’ and my class can’t experience that,” Carello said.

As schools adopt new admission policies and colleges like Syracuse University adopt the test-optional policy again for the Class of 2022, the pandemic could influence the college application format for years to come.

“I just hope that we will take a look at everything we’ve learned from our experiences over the past two years of this pandemic, and, hopefully, we can improve upon our processes and procedures for students getting accepted into college,” Mason said. “Hopefully, that learning will help us to be successful in supporting our students.”

Avatar for Morgan Tucker

is the Life and Style Lead Producer for The NewsHouse and a newspaper and online journalism junior at Syracuse University.