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The Dilemma For High School Seniors: Navigating College Admissions In A Pandemic

Ja'na Kelly poses in front of University City High School on Dec. 6, 2020. She's a senior at the high school, though she's hardly been inside since March. She had to navigate school and now college admissions virtually.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Ja'na Kelly in front of University City High School, where she's a senior, though she's hardly been inside since March. She had to navigate school and now college admissions virtually.

This is not the year for the college road trip. Instead, it’s been all about clicking through virtual campus tours.

Parker Kopplin is a senior at Ritenour High School in St. Louis County, and that’s where he was when he explored the campus of UCLA.

“It just doesn't feel like a real experience,” Kopplin said. “It kind of just seems like you're reading and talking to a brochure.”

Kopplin instead has listed Mizzou, a school he was able to visit last summer, as his top choice.

McCluer High School senior Aldo Estrada also at one time had dreams of going to college in southern California. But the pandemic has Estrada, who will be the first in his family to attend college, wanting to stay closer to home.

Because I started to realize, if stuff like this were to actually happen again, I wouldn’t have the quickest way to get home,” he said.

With both traditional high school and college experiences upended by the pandemic, high school seniors are reconsidering where to apply for college this fall. And those who are still charging forward with ambitious college plans are doing so without the resume they had hoped would win over admissions officers.

Testing dates for standardized tests — the ACT and SAT — were repeatedly canceled in the spring and summer. Ritenour senior Chris Campos wanted to boost his score from junior year to have a better shot at getting into the University of Miami.

“It was difficult because they kept canceling the ACT,” he said. “So I had to keep re-signing up, and it just kept getting canceled and canceled.”

Luckily for him and others, more colleges are making standardized tests optional on their applications. They’re instead putting more emphasis on students' grades. But that’s a problem this year too, as more schools were pass-fail after students were sent home in March.

“And so there's this kind of big hole in the review process for colleges where we don't see your junior year, second semester, and we don't have standardized testing,” said Jamie Moynihan, director of college counseling for AcceptU, a college counseling service. “And so it creates a lot of hurdles.”

In normal times, extracurriculars can make up for less-than-stellar academics. But this year some schools canceled fall sports and put after-school activities on hold.

Miranda Martin, a senior at Ritenour, was hoping to shine in choir and theater during her senior year, “but there's been no concerts, there's been no auditions for anything.”

Lotus MacDonald, from McCluer High School, plans to attend Truman State University, where her mom went. She was going to highlight being a part of her school’s spirit squad on her application.

“But not having that this year really made me reevaluate what I would talk about,” she said.

She decided to focus instead on how she got involved in anti-racism activism at her school.

Use of the Common Application — an admissions tool widely accepted by colleges nationwide — dropped this fall for first-generation applicants. There also have been fewer financial aid paperwork filings. Both are signs that fewer low-income students are considering college.

Many high school seniors are struggling to stay motivated for classwork and paperwork for applications and scholarships, said college adviser Nikki DeLeo. She’s with College Bound, which works with low-income and first-generation students.

“Normally what we do is we sit down with students, we walk through the Common App, we walk through different schools’ websites, and help them physically do a FAFSA. We're doing all of that over the phone and video screen,” she said. “And so that's really hard.”

But while colleges are being flexible for seniors around tests and activities, DeLeo advises applicants to steer clear of writing about the pandemic.

“Every teenager wants to write about COVID, so (I’m) just encouraging them to try to think about other things that have happened in their life and write about those things,” she said.

Education strategist Michael Horn has written a book on getting into college. The big dip in freshman enrollment at campuses this fall could work to some applicants’ advantage, he said.

“They’re much more in the position of being able to choose the college, because a lot of these colleges are desperate for them to show up and pay,” Horn said.

The regular admissions deadline for most colleges is Jan. 1. University City High School senior Ja’na Kelly toughed out virtual campus visits and info sessions through the summer and fall, which she said were at times irritating.

“You’re just stuck to a screen,” she said.

But Kelly was able to get applications out earlier this fall, and the acceptance letters have already been coming in.

“I was just real happy, in shock,” she said when the first acceptance email hit her inbox. “Because reality just really hit me, like, we grown up. Life is really fitting to change.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.