From the eyes of a senior: COVID-19 has shown me what the college application process should look like

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Graphic by Caroline Dinh

The unprecedented 2021 college application process has been a tumultuous journey for seniors.

Kyla Baker, Opinions Writer

Last month, while on a Discord call with a friend, I was absent-mindedly checking my email when I came across the subject line of my most recent email: “Your application has been updated.” My eyes widened and my stomach dropped. Without a second thought, I ended the Discord call and phoned my mom while logging on to the admissions portal. After a few minutes of anxiety-induced procrastination, I opened the decision.

I was overcome with joy as I read “Congratulations!” at the top of my screen. I had done it, I was definitively going to college. My mom congratulated me, made a post on Facebook and then hung up while I gawked at my computer screen for another half an hour. That excitement quickly faded away, though, and I went back to anxiously waiting for a decision to come from other schools that I had applied to — including New York University, my dream school since I was 12 years old.

Already, thousands of seniors around the country are getting admissions decisions, and if they are lucky, are being accepted into their desired universities. For many, these college acceptance letters are the first morsel of good news since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The journey to this point, however, was a uniquely challenging one for the class of 2021. Due to the virus, many seniors struggled to access testing locations for the SAT and ACT. Luckily, considering these circumstances, almost all U.S. based colleges and universities instituted a test-optional policy this year. This came as a relief to many seniors nationwide. The switch kept students and their families safe while also shining a spotlight on other critical parts of a college application including the essay.

According to CollegeVine, the college application essays count for 25 percent of the overall application because of how a personal essay tells more about a student than a standardized test can. Each essay highlights an integral component to a student’s story of growth and change. In my CommonApp essay, I compared my recent experience of getting glasses after having terrible vision to a transformation I underwent a few years ago. This transformation changed my view of the world and shaped my future goals after college.

This period of my life led me to pursue early graduation, changing the rest of my high school experience, a unique aspect that I conveyed throughout my application. A strong college application essay gives the admissions officer a powerful representation of who you are, what motivates you, and why you deserve admission. Many colleges also look for students who would match their campus’ atmosphere and community, details that can only be conveyed through the personal essay. It is a complete game-changer, especially for applicants who might not have as competitive of academic prowess. 

Standardized test scores are gradually becoming less significant at larger university systems such as the Universities of California (UC), which decided to go test-optional for the foreseeable future. UC’s decision is a result of many things, namely how standardized test scores are disproportionately skewed against minority students. According to the 2019 California SAT Annual Report, only 12 and 9 percent of Hispanic and Black students respectively scored higher than 1200 on the SAT, whereas 45 percent of white students scored higher than 1200. According to PrepScholar, the top-25 colleges in the United States accept students with an average SAT score of 1400 or higher. 

With so many students at a disadvantage when taking these standardized tests, it brings about the question of their actual value. More colleges must begin to consider a test-optional policy to ensure equal opportunity for all students, including those who may not qualify for testing fee waivers, but also cannot afford to take the standardized tests multiple times. Many universities pride themselves on student success while overlooking incredibly talented students because they might not have had the same high test scores that other, more privileged students had.

However, if standardized test scores are in, or above, the range of a student’s top-choice schools, then they should send them in to strengthen their application. A student can only benefit from providing more data points in their applications. But for those who were not afforded the opportunity to take the SAT or ACT before their college application deadlines, or felt that their scores would unfavorably impact their application, applying test-optional is a perfectly valid choice that can be made up for with a strong, well-crafted application essay. As college admissions and high school continue to become more competitive and strenuous for students, universities must remember that the SAT and ACT do not test a student’s intelligence, rather their ability to fill in a scantron.