Stress And Confusion: How COVID-19 Is Complicating College Applications

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Sarah Wyngowski is a senior at Pioneer Valley Regional School. (Courtesy)
Sarah Wyngowski is a senior at Pioneer Valley Regional School. (Courtesy)

Pioneer Valley Regional School senior Sarah Wyngowski managed to take the SAT once this fall. But her score wasn’t as good as she’d hoped.

"I did not put my test scores into my college applications because I don't think they represented my abilities to the best that they could have been," Wyngowski said.

Wyngowski thinks the quick pivot to remote learning that her western Massachusetts school made last spring played a big role in her score.

"At first, they weren’t really prepared — as most schools weren’t prepared — since they weren't expecting anything like this," she explained. "And I feel like I kind of lost a lot of learning that would help me in the SAT."

Challenges accessing the test faced by students like Wyngowski are part of the reason more colleges and universities went test optional for this admissions cycle. More than 1,600 U.S. colleges dropped their requirement for students to take the SAT or ACT this year, according to Fair Test, an organization that's critical of standardized testing.

Wyngowski is glad that so many schools are test optional this year, but she still can’t seem to shake the idea that choosing not to submit an SAT score could put her at a disadvantage.

"I am very stressed about whether or not that will affect my application decision," she said.

In general, anxiety levels are high among seniors, according to several school counselors.

"The stress level has definitely been higher with COVID in the mix, there's a lot more uncertainty," Wyngowski’s counselor Lucas Correia-Covert told WBUR. "There's definitely a fear of the unknown when it comes to the admissions process."

Then there are communication challenges thanks to the pandemic.

"Without physically being together. It's so hard to know what's happening for these kids and if they're OK," said Johanna Smith, a counselor at the Lynn Vocational and Technical High School. "I'm concerned about students being able to keep their grades up for their applications and for themselves."

Smith's work load also makes it hard to feel like she's giving every student the attention they need. She has about 370 high school students, which is 120 students more than what the American School Counselor Association recommends.

To fill in the gaps, Smith is turning to platforms like Instagram and TikTok, where she posts videos like this one reminding students to make sure the name on their school records matches the name on their scholarship applications.

But even with creative attempts at connecting, students are feeling the toll of heavy counselor work loads and reliance on virtual communication.

Brockton High School senior Isabelle Staco said it can be frustrating to wait several hours or even overnight for an answer. Before the pandemic, she would drop by her counselor's office after school and get an answer almost immediately.

"Since I know how long it takes for her to respond to my messages, I tend to hold back on some of my questions sometimes," she said. When she's on a tight deadline, she turns to Google searches.

High school senior Isabelle Staco at her home in Brockton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
High school senior Isabelle Staco at her home in Brockton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The uncertainty over standardized testing is also adding to her nerves. Staco studied eight hours a night this spring to prepare for the SAT. She registered to take the exam twice this year, but both dates were cancelled.

"I’m kind of worried because when it comes to admissions officers comparing my application with another, would test scores matter?" she said.

Right now, independent college counselors like Cathy Costa are advising clients to consider standardized testing this year as just one way to demonstrate a strength.

"For kids who were hoping to rely on testing as a strength, we just try to find ways to demonstrate other strengths that they have," Costa explained.

She added for the most part, though, the students she works with have been rolling with the punches of this year’s application season.

This segment aired on November 12, 2020.


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Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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