The Exquisite Angst of Applying to College in a Deeply Anxious Year

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This is the season of peak anxiety for high school seniors planning to go to college, and on top of all the application forms and deadlines and personal essays they usually have to juggle, add a host of new obstacles in this pandemic year.

The coronavirus has put American families in financial crisis, forced millions of students to learn remotely, canceled college tours and standardized testing dates, and prevented legions of students from participating in the sports and other extracurricular activities that serve as creative outlets and résumé boosters.

“It’s all a balance, and I’m not really balanced right now,” said Lea Caldwell, 17, a Detroit student who is working part time as she wrestles with her senior year course load and her college applications.

Seniors and those who guide them through the process say the level of uncertainty and disruption is off the charts as the virus surges across the country, forcing many schools to shut down classrooms again and making weighty decisions about the future more fraught than ever.

“We’ve had to hold hands a lot more,” said Holly M. Markiecki-Bennetts, a guidance counselor at Ms. Caldwell’s school, Mercy High, in Farmington Hills, Mich.

It is unclear if all the tumult will make it easier or more challenging for students to get into the Class of 2025, especially at competitive universities. Will holdovers from this year, when freshman enrollment was down, increase competition for spots next fall? Or will fewer people ultimately apply, giving more students a shot at their dream schools?

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Final application deadlines are still to come, but the data on early-decision applications this month showed a slightly smaller number of students applying to college, especially from low-income families, although those that did were trying their luck at more schools than usual.

That data comes from the Common Application, which is used by more than 900 U.S. colleges and universities to screen prospective students. This year, the application added an optional 250-word essay about the virus’s impact, to give students a chance to explain their circumstances without it having to take over the rest of their application.

“I think it’s going to help us provide context, how the crisis has impacted their schools and their families and their communities,” said Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions.

The coronavirus has left Chad Hicks, 17, a senior at the Urban Assembly Maker Academy in New York, wishing he could get more in-person attention as he makes his college decisions and fills out applications. “It would be so simple if my teacher could actually show me what to do,” he said.

His mother, a security guard, earned a high school equivalency diploma and took some community college classes, so she does not have the personal experience to give him the advice and guidance he needs, Mr. Hicks said. He visited Temple University while in middle school, and it is his top choice. He is still working on the application.

Although there is plenty of time — the regular application deadline at most colleges is Jan. 1 — admissions officers say they are hearing from many prospective students that they plan to wait as long as possible this year. The uncertainty concerns schools that hope a strong crop of applicants will help overcome falling undergraduate enrollment, down 4.4 percent this semester, and financial difficulties exacerbated by the pandemic.

Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

“It is a severe disruption to our business.” said David Burge, vice president for enrollment management at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Low-income students and those who would be the first in their families to attend college appear to be particularly hesitant, experts said, reflecting the personal and economic impact of the virus. The number of high school seniors who have filled out a free application for federal student aid is down 16 percent from this time last year, and early applications from poor and first-generation students are down 10 percent.

Jenny Rickard, chief executive of the Common App, called the numbers, particularly for first-generation students, “bleak” and said the trend would be hard to reverse by January’s regular admissions deadline.

Other early indicators, though, showed that while some students might be slower than usual to apply, others are taking a chance with more schools — perhaps because they were unable to narrow their choices without campus visits and college fairs.

Through mid-November, the number of students who had submitted applications to colleges remained 4 percent below the same time last year, according to Common App data. But the overall number of applications had risen 3 percent over last year because the smaller pool of students applied to more schools.

Colleges that went test-optional — some 1,600, at last count — were, not surprisingly, the biggest beneficiaries of the higher volume.

Thousands of students who would usually take the SAT or ACT this year have been frustrated as local testing sites have closed because of virus outbreaks; 30 percent of the 312,000 students registered to take the SAT in November were unable to, a number that was similar to test dates earlier in the fall.

Cole Strachan, 18, a student at academically selective Boston Latin, studied to take the SAT this spring, only to have test dates canceled in March and April. He was finally able to take the exam in September but did not receive his scores by Nov. 1, the early decision deadline. So he sent his application materials in without exam results — to seven colleges.

“I think if I were able to visit the schools, it might have changed my list,” he said.

Credit…Adam Glanzman for The New York Times

Institutions that usually take test scores into account will have to find other ways to evaluate test-free applications like Mr. Strachan’s. At Yale, admissions officers will take a closer look at elements like teacher recommendations, high school transcripts and student writing, including the personal essay, said Mr. Quinlan, the admissions dean.

That aspect also gave Mr. Strachan difficulties: What to write about, and how to stand out? With his soccer and lacrosse seasons canceled, along with other extracurricular activities, he filled the time by starting a group called A Helping Elbow with friends and classmates, to deliver groceries to older people or those with compromised immune systems.

As the organization grew, the students started sewing hundreds of face masks. The experience became a dominant part of his college application.

Just as students have struggled with this strange admissions season, so have colleges. The databases they buy from testing companies have fewer names, test scores and demographic information this year, adding to the challenge of recruiting. Virtual college tours and other forms of online outreach make it more difficult to form personal connections.

“Everything’s on Zoom, which is hard,” said Peter Hagan, head of admissions at Syracuse University.

But others said virtual outreach removed the logistical difficulties of reaching possible applicants.

“We’ve connected with an incredible number of students,” said Mr. Quinlan, the admissions dean at Yale. “The barriers to information sessions — not getting to Topeka, Kan., or getting to New Haven — are gone.”

For Ms. Caldwell, who attends an all-girls Catholic school in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, the last few months have been rocky. Her father, an autoworker, got Covid-19 early on but has since recovered. Neither of her parents finished college.

Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

Her SAT was canceled the week that school shut down in March, she said. Instead, she took the ACT, which she had hardly prepared for. She did not do as well as she had hoped.

Her 20-hour-a-week job in a clothing store, on top of school and her personal life, is “a lot to juggle,” she said. She has applied to three colleges close to home but until this week was procrastinating about applying to others that she really wants to attend.

“Because of the pandemic, I feel like I’m knocked off my square,” she said. “I can’t really ask anyone in my family, so I’m taking it one step at a time. I’m going to get there.”

Shawn Hubler contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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