What was it like to apply to college during a pandemic?
Applying to college is never easy. It’s an amalgam of ambition, hope, self-doubt, and pressure — a heavy lift for a teenager in the best of times. For the Class of 2021, the coronavirus made it even harder, shutting down college tours and standardized tests, summer jobs and internships, sports and other extracurricular activities — all the building blocks of a typical college application.
“The Class of 2021 was facing a chaotic and unprecedented process.”
So the whole process diverged from the norm. Almost every school in the country decided not to require SAT or ACT scores, and admission officers promised a more holistic review process during an unsettling time. Students at NMH and around the world were left wondering: Would competition be more intense? Would college admission officers be more forgiving? What would pandemic-induced budget cuts do to financial aid? NMH Director of College Counseling Peter Jenkins says that, compared to years past, students were “facing a chaotic and unprecedented process.”
Nationally, the number of college applications fell, particularly from first-generation and low-income applicants — students whose families were hit harder by the pandemic. But selective colleges, including those popular among NMH students, were deluged. The number of students applying to Colgate increased by more than 100 percent from the previous year. Harvard saw a 42 percent jump. Applications at Brown, Boston University, and Middlebury College each rose approximately 25 percent, and those to NYU went up 20 percent. Ironically, Jenkins reports, the pandemic made colleges — even the most selective schools — nervous about future enrollment, and they drew applicants by appearing to be more open and available. This “created a perfect storm,” he says. “Kids got ambitious and optimistic.”
At Northeastern University, where applications increased by 17 percent, Senior Associate Director of Admission Tim Kelly said that he and his colleagues “spared nothing in terms of rethinking our processes.” Without standardized test scores — “a major quantitative piece of information that we’ve used as a tool for a very long time,” Kelly says — “we became more mindful about the qualitative sides of a student’s application, and we placed an even greater emphasis on contextualizing students’ stories.”
And Kelly sensed an undercurrent of positivity and groundedness among the students he talked to, despite the heightened anxiety and confusion that surrounded the application process this year. Yes, they were nervous, but they weren’t focusing on how COVID was affecting colleges. “I was surprised,” Kelly said. “Students didn't have a ton of questions about Northeastern’s reopening process, or all the academic continuity measures that we took in the midst of the pandemic. They wanted to know the traditional college admission stuff.”
At NMH, most seniors and PGs took advantage of opportunities to apply early to schools last fall, but March and April still brought the usual rollercoaster ride of hearing from colleges. In the Class of 2021, just over 200 students submitted nearly 2,000 college applications to 350 different schools. We asked three of them — Carina Medrano of the Bronx, New York; Gus Williams of Brattleboro, Vermont; and Binhao Bill Wu of Shanghai, China — to share snapshots of their experience.
Carina Medrano ’21
“There were times when I was staying up all night, thinking, Oh my god, it’s going to be harder this year because of COVID. A lot of my stress came from hearing other people talk. Like the people who graduated from NMH last year, in 2020 — some of them were talking about taking a gap year and going to college a year late. Which meant I would have to compete against them. And I’m applying for financial aid. Is that going to take away from the possible financial aid I can get from a certain school?
You had to get your head in the game and say, ‘Yes, this is happening, but you’ve got to work with it.’ Maybe COVID made colleges more lenient about scores or grades, or maybe they considered the essay more, and writing is my strong suit. Thinking about the pros as well as the cons, that was something I focused on when the pandemic hit. Honestly, the whole application process is weird, and it’s been so unpredictable. I think I hyped it up to be more difficult than it actually is. It’s really just time management.
There was a moment when it was rough between my mom and me because I felt that she was taking over. Someone in NMH College Counseling made a car analogy: the student is driving, the college counselor is in the passenger seat, and the parents are in the back. And I felt like it was my mom trying to drive the car. I said, “Mom, I understand that you’re stressed about this, too” — I’m her first kid to go to college, and there’s the uncertainty of the pandemic and all the obstacles I might have to go through. “But trust me. I can do this on my own.”
Carina will attend Georgetown University.
Gus Williams ’21
“Knowing that I wanted to play sports really helped my college decision-making. I’m a good athlete, but I knew I wanted to balance sports with academics. Doing a postgraduate year at NMH gave me a better shot at NESCAC schools — the small, New England liberal-arts schools.
I started talking to coaches as a junior, so two and a half years ago — a long time ago. There have definitely been anxious moments, but I felt I had to be optimistic and have some faith. Shout-out to my coaches at NMH — they helped me so much. Last fall, when I had teammates who were already committing to schools, I tried not to compare myself to them. I would have loved to be in that position, but I knew my time would come. I just tried to stay humble and trust the process.
I’ve heard coaches say this has been a really tough year for recruiting. Lacrosse is a spring sport, and there was no spring season last year. Luckily, I got to play last summer with my club team, as far as we could make it COVID-safe. I was able to make a highlight video, which coaches liked.
With NESCAC schools, the coaches have a certain number of slots for kids who are applying. If they want you, you’ll get support from the coach during the admission process, but it’s not a guarantee that you’ll get in. I got an offer to play soccer at one school, but my goal for this PG year was to get to a place where I’d be able to play lacrosse at the next level. I’m going to take it as far as I can.”
Gus will attend Connecticut College and play on the men’s lacrosse team.
Bill Binhao Wu ’21
“The biggest difference this year with COVID was not being able to do campus visits. And there were no in-person interviews — to me, that was actually a good thing. Before, every time I thought about those interviews, I would freak out. Doing them online, I could be in my zone. Another thing that COVID made possible was that I could go to online admission-counselor office hours. The schools became more transparent, and offered more opportunities for people who wouldn’t have been able to get to the campus. It was a good chance to talk with students who actually go to the school.
The culture of competitiveness definitely got worse with COVID, especially in China. A big reason is because of the deferral situation, people going on gap years, which made acceptance rates lower. But this negative climate existed before the pandemic. In the United States, people use different social-media platforms to get the information they want, or talk with friends. But in China, WeChat dominates, and when college consultants have students get accepted to schools, they post it on social media, in that one place. And with COVID, everyone is spending more time on screens, more time on social media. It makes the whole process more stressful.
I’ve been trying to convince my parents that rankings are not everything. I don’t want to be in a place where there is too much competition — where students stop bettering themselves for themselves, but do it to out-compete others. I want to be in a more collaborative, open, and inclusive place, one that fosters inner personal growth. I have fought so hard to not be consumed by societal expectations of me (I came to NMH to escape from that) and I don't want my college experience to wind up that way.
Bill will attend Northwestern University.
Photos by Glenn Minshall and courtesy of Carina Medrano and Bill Wu.