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'More Stressful Than Ever': Pandemic-Era Admissions Worry Harvard Applicants and College Admissions Counselors

Applicants for Harvards Class of 2025 face an ongoing pandemic that has restricted access to standardized tests, disrupted extracurricular activities and, for many, changed their senior year of high school.

Less than two weeks after the college evicted most students from their on-campus accommodations in March, the admissions department issued a guide to high school juniors at the time that they would not be penalized for not failing advanced placement. and submit SAT subject test results.

In light of the increasing closings of test centers across the country and the cancellation of tests, Harvard's admissions board updated its guide in June, announcing that it would not require standardized test scores from class 2025 applicants in order to be considered for admission. Since then, every Ivy League institution has put test-free guidelines in place for this year's admission cycle.

With college application season in full swing, high school seniors applying for the Class of 2025 said they still feel unsure and concerned about these revised guidelines for the next Harvard application cycle and their admission prospects.

,A big difference'

The pandemic has limited high school seniors' ability to explore colleges and has forced others to shift their priorities in deciding where to live for the next four years.

Former University of Virginia admissions officer and college advisor Parke Muth said the remote versions of campus exploration offer potential students a completely different experience.

“In spring, summer, and fall, tour groups are typically packed with families and students who come to campus to get a feel for the school. Now there are online tours and information events, ”said Muth. "That's a big difference."

For some applicants, however, assessing whether they would fit into Harvard was only possible through pre-pandemic experience. Ricky Andrade, a Key Biscayne, Fla., Native and high school senior planning to apply to college early, said he was lucky enough to see the campus with his own eyes before the application season.

“I'm lucky my sister went to Harvard because that means I went to Harvard and had a feel for the community, which is something I can't say - not just for other people who are in Harvard will apply - but for myself at other schools, ”said Andrade. "There is no substitute for being there in person."

Others, such as Erica S. Choe, a high school senior from Fort Lee, N.J. who is about to apply during the regular voting session at Harvard, said the pandemic has forced her to rethink where to study.

“Distance was never a factor until the pandemic hit. I am much more aware of this now. That's why I've crossed some schools off my list, ”said Choe. "California was kind of a pro for me, but now geography has slipped down my priority list when considering a school."

At the same time, Choe said that she believes the economic impact of the pandemic has led her to weight factors such as the cost of participation and financial support more heavily than she did before.

"The financial accessibility and what financial support they can give me has increased a lot because my family has taken a really hard blow to our family business from the pandemic," she said.

'What If It's Not Good Enough?'

Despite the colleges' flexibility efforts, some high school seniors say they are still stressed out about their test scores and how best to showcase their interrupted summer and extracurricular activities in their applications.

With the college's decision to become test-optional for this year's application cycle, some applicants said they had to consider whether or not to submit their results. Andrade said he plans to submit his test results, but he felt undecided about his decision.

“I planned to do the ACT again. At the end of the day I decided that the result I was getting was good enough that I didn't have to do it again, so I was happy with it, ”said Andrade. “But I remember being really scared for a long time and thinking, 'What if it's not good enough? It took me months to talk to my advisor and parents to make up my mind. "

Choe said she was unhappy with the management of the advanced placement tests last spring because she didn't have access to high quality Wi-Fi.

"I ended up getting a score that I wasn't really happy with, and I don't think it would have been representative of my score if we had just done it in a normal setting," said Choe.

Zak M. Harris, a former admissions director at Regis College who now works with the InGenius Prep advisory group, said students and their families shouldn't see the tests as "the be-all and end-all".

"When I stood up for college students, it was never about, well, this kid has a 1540 and this kid has a 1480," Harris said of his time in the admissions department. "

In addition to the standardized tests, the pandemic has also affected the summer opportunities and extracurricular activities of many potential applicants.

Jessica J. Lee of Leonia, N.J., who tried to apply during the early action round at Harvard, lamented the loss of her soccer season, which was canceled two weeks ago. Lee also said her summer job at the Research Science Institute wasn't as fulfilling in a virtual format.

Kelvin Kuang, a potential applicant from Washington, D.C., said the pandemic has dramatically changed his summer plans and attendance at extracurricular events.

"My parents were out of work, so my siblings and I decided to go out and try to find jobs," said Kuang. "

Kuang also said he lost a research position on an MIT summer program that was canceled because of the pandemic.


Many Class of 2025 applicants and application counselors speculate about the short-term impact of the pandemic on college admission.

At least 340 students, representing more than 20 percent of the 2024 class, have postponed enrollment, a significant increase from the 90 to 130 students who do so in a typical year, according to the college's website.

Andrade said he believes the number of students who postponed enrollment in the 2025 class could have a negative effect on his and other applicants' prospects for admission.

"I've thought about it a lot, but it's been a long way from my thoughts lately - maybe on purpose -" said Andrade. “Those chances will be less whether you like it or not. There isn't much that can be done.

After Harvard announced in July that freshmen would be the only full class invited to campus for the fall, Assistant Dean of Studies Lauren E. Brandt '01 said the college is facing the strain of students coming into future semesters will return from the leave of absence, be "aware".

Bay Area-based admission testing expert Jay R. Rosner said he was also concerned that the introduction of emergency grade standards in many high schools could put pressure on those who apply in the next few years.

“We now have this grade impact on the last year. That turns out to be a pretty big influence, ”said Rosner. “For the most part, we get less information and that leads to students trying to be a little more creative, generating other projects or ventures to write about and show the colleges to give them more information. "

College admissions experts said they believe the impact of the pandemic on the application process is still unknown but is likely to spur change in the long term. For example, the pandemic has put the spotlight on the role of standardized tests in college admissions.

Harris said he believes that colleges' increasing abandonment of standardized testing is a natural result of pre-pandemic efforts to drop testing requirements.

"There are many high-profile schools that have long been test-free and their students are doing great things and doing amazing things in and out of college," said Harris. "I think it will be very interesting for me to see what the tests will look like in two, three, five years and whether they still have the stranglehold they have on this whole process now."

Despite the changes to the standardized tests, Rosner said he believes other aspects of college application may return to normal over time.

"As the impact of COVID recedes, the nature of grades and extracurricular activities will return to their pre-COVID response," Rosner said. “You will have the deeper and broader information of notes.

Meanwhile, Muth said that overall, these greater uncertainties with testing and approvals can put an undue burden on those going through their applications on their own.

"There are just so many moving parts and unknowns at the moment," said Muth. "When you don't have someone who has the time to talk to you about it, be it a counselor, a mentor, a friend, whatever, it feels harder and more stressful to me than ever before."

Author Benjamin L. Fu can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ BenFu_2.