Pandemic provides new challenges, changes, in navigating college application process

From campus tours to standardized test score requirements, the pandemic has changed certain steps in the process
Published: Feb. 8, 2021 at 9:52 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 8, 2021 at 10:29 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The college application process can be stressful for students and families in a normal year. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, that already complex process has added changes and challenges for applicants to navigate.

Typically, one of the first steps in the college application process is looking at college campuses and touring schools in order to see them firsthand. However, with pandemic shut downs also came changes to campus tours, with many campuses no longer offering guided tours.

“Those individuals were not able to go on campus visits, they were not able to visit a campus in person, and we as counselors know how critical that visit is,” said Laura Kallenbach, a school counselor at Portage High School. “You need to see that place in person to know if it’s going to be a good match for you, and you’re either going to love it or hate it so you need to have that experience, and that was lacking for all of our students as they began that college process last year.”

Kallenbach has been a school counselor for over 30 years. This year, however, has raised new questions about what college will look like from her students.

“I’ve heard that a lot from students and from parents unsure of what that environment’s going to look like, unsure if they want to continue in this virtual world,” she said.

For Portage High School senior Emma Kreuziger, the college application process took her own research and digging.

“Mostly they’re just virtual tours,” she said of her experience touring campuses. “You are able to go to campuses and walk around, but you don’t get student interaction and you aren’t given the guided tour, so you don’t really know what student life is like there and getting the experience of what the college might be like. So when you’re picking the school you want to apply to, you really have to go on their website and look through everything and all the details yourself and try and figure out what it’s going to be like.”

UW-Madison is offering virtual tours, rather than in-person tours. Kirstin DeMartino, Director of Campus and Visitor Relations, said virtual tours via Zoom are available on a weekly basis.

“On those tours are a panel of student tour guides host a live experience. They share campus facts and resources, but more than that, they really share their personal experiences and perspectives that I think really give the life to the campus experience as much as possible in that virtual space,” DeMartino said. “They’re speaking to their own experiences in their majors, in their student organizations and other activities that they’re a part of and really talking about, and answering questions that might help a perspective student and their families learn about what matters to them as they explore college.”

DeMartino said an added perk of the virtual tours has been increased accessibility for perspective students who otherwise might not have been able to get to campus.

Kreuziger also said she had to take into consideration how the pandemic would affect her experience once she was in college during her search.

“If you go to a big school and you’re paying more money to go there, are you still going to get all the experiences that you’re paying for? Are you really going to be learning in classrooms or are you going to be in your dorm room just on a computer that you could do somewhere [else] even at home?” she said. “So you have to think about that, how long is this going to last where it’s not going to be the same?”

Zach Galin is president, founder, and a college admissions counselor for GalinEducation, a supplemental education organization based in Madison that helps students around the world prepare for college.

“The process has been evolving and changing, policies have been changing at different colleges because of the pandemic,” Galin said. “They’ve been having to navigate an even more complex process from what it was before, which was complex.”

Galin said many deadlines have changed for college applications, with some deadlines being extended or added.

Another change is schools waiving the requirement to submit standardized test scores as part of the application.

“I think the biggest one that came out this year for current seniors is that many many colleges, perhaps 75% or more, went test optional,” he said. “Meaning that you do not need to submit an ACT or an SAT in order to be considered for admission.”

This change is one that Kallenbach said was welcomed by her students.

“This was a huge relief for the students because many of them did not have the chance to take it in the first place or didn’t have the opportunity to retake it to better their scores,” she said. “For me being a counselor all these years and hearing that the campuses were no longer requiring the ACT was just unheard of. We never expected anything like that.”

Galin said the trend of making test score submission optional was a movement that started before the pandemic, which may continue for some schools after the pandemic. However, he said some schools will likely go back to requiring test scores.

“For a student who may have a mismatch in what their grades and what their test scores are, that may be a candidate for not submitting your test score,” he said. “But for someone who does well on the test, it certainly can help them with getting into a school.”

Another change in the college application process during the pandemic has been application fees. Many schools reduced or waived the cost of applying, including schools in the UW System.

“Previously it was 50 dollars, we lowered it to 25 and now it’s zero for all but three institutions, Wisconsin Madison, Eau Claire, and La Crosse,” said Anny Morrobel-Sosa, VP for Academic and Student Affairs for the UW System. “On the other hand, and in addition to that, I must say, the ability to be able to apply to more than one institution was very important. Financially that was difficult for many of our students, they typically apply only to one institution. Well, this affords them the possibility to truly explore the areas that they want to pursue an education in.”

In addition to reducing and waiving application fees at some schools, the UW System also temporarily waived test score requirements for application.

“One of the things that has been understood for quite some time is that it really is a test in how well one can take a test, and that disadvantaged many individuals who were not able to prepare themselves for that test, which again, costs some additional monies,” said Morrobel-Sosa. “By eliminating that as a requirement, we saw it also as an opportunity to make sure that there was no enhanced financial burden on our students as a result of COVID, never mind the stress.”

With these new developments, Morrobel-Sosa said they have seen some new trends in applications.

“With regards to us, if you compare applications for fall ‘21 versus fall ‘20, because we also changed the application fee, we have seen an increasing number of students applying to us by about 11% compared to fall ‘20,” she said.

Morrobel-Sosa said the UW System is aware of the additional challenges students are facing during the pandemic. She said they are currently looking at ways they can develop summer programs for juniors and seniors in high school to prepare.

“In looking at ways in which we can support them, we’ve also had conversations with the Department of Public Instruction with individuals there in ways that we can connect to high school teachers and also assist them in the way that we have been assisting our own, in developing better ways in which to present the classroom or education online.”

For students who are concerned that the pandemic may have negatively impacted their school year, Galin said most colleges do a holistic review, where all aspects of the candidate are reviewed, not just their grades and test scores.

“We like to make sure that we look at students in a very holistic way, what is the best talent that this individual has and how can we support them when they arrive to our campuses,” said Morrobel-Sosa.

Galin also said that there are opportunities on college applications, citing the Common App application, to describe how the pandemic has impacted the student.

“They added an extra question on how has COVID impacted you or your family, and so there’s another opportunity for students who may be immuno-compromised or who may live with a family member who is, or who may have experienced harm because of the pandemic - whether it’s an economic loss or a family loss - there’s opportunity for them to describe what’s going on in their lives,” he said.

Galin said that extremely selective colleges will likely continue to be highly competitive in their admissions processes. He said he believes admission rates at those schools will likely go down this year as more students apply to selective schools because they’ve gone test optional.

“At schools that are a bit more open, there’s definitely more consideration on who is this kid and how did they persevere through the pandemic, what were they up to?” he said.

Kallenbach said some campuses will be more adaptable and flexible with student admissions because of the pandemic.

“I think I just need to emphasize for them that the campuses are recognizing that it looks different now,” she said. “Your resume, your application, your pass fail grades are not going to be a deterrent for them being accepted.”

For Kreuziger, the road to college acceptances may have had more twists and turns than in a traditional year, but it ultimately paid off. Kreuziger is now choosing between two college acceptances, right here in Wisconsin.

“I’m really proud of myself and I’m happy that even with all the challenges I was able to do what I want and get into a school that I want to go,” she said.

Application processes vary at different colleges, and applicants should research each individual school’s policies.

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