East seniors adapt to college application process during pandemic

Oswego East High School graduate Kesiime Akankwasa works on her college course work from home during the pandemic. Akankwasa is a double major in pyshology and women & ethnic studies. “I think [being in remote learning] would have really changed how I approached my college applications. I probably would’ve factored in the schools’ response to COVID-19 in my final decision,” Akankwasa said. Photo by Lucy Weiher.

Tis the season for college applications and their looming deadlines. 

Much like all the years past, seniors are working overtime building an admirable college resume filled with all the essentials — extracurricular activities, sports, and standardized test scores, all complimented by touching personal essays and community service hours that hopefully set them apart from other candidates. However, very much unlike past years, those seniors never had a pandemic working against their favor. 

What started out as a seemingly extended spring break back in March has now turned into months of quarantining and remote learning, neither of which will help high school students build a traditional college application. 

Most students seek to develop a well-rounded application, highlighting academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and personal experiences to present themselves as ideal candidates for admission. However, with social distancing guidelines restricting the types of activities that clubs can participate in, several students have found it difficult to find such opportunities.

When posting about a club on social media or hanging up posters in the school hallways are the primary methods of promoting most clubs at East, it’s understandable that a switch to a solely online learning system has made it difficult for such announcements to reach the student body. 

For junior Paloma Martinez Palomares, who had recently moved here from Mexico, starting school on a digital platform made it difficult to find more information about clubs and connect with her new community. She was especially excited to take part in athletics at East to continue playing sports like tennis and soccer, and was disappointed when their respective seasons were cancelled due to social distancing regulations. 

“I wanted to try a lot of new things and meet new people, but it’s been much harder to do that without as much information or guidance,” Palomares said.

Even students who had previously been involved in several clubs were impacted by the lack of opportunities for extracurricular activities. According to senior Jayden Chan, a member of Tri-M, National Chinese Honor Society, Mandarin Club, and Key Club, involvement in extracurriculars are important to creating a balanced application that represents who you are as a person. 

“I think participating in clubs shows that you’re not only into academics, you’re not just a student, but you’re a developed individual and human being,” Chan said. 

With this sentiment, it really was no surprise that Chan was disappointed in the lack of accessible information to join BPA (Business Professionals of America). He expressed that while he considered joining the club for the 2020-2021 school year, he didn’t really know much about the club’s mission, participation in the community, or even meeting dates and that’s what ultimately deterred him from joining. 

No matter the club, the goal of them all is the same — provide unique opportunities for students to get involved within the community. 

“I think participating in clubs shows that you’re not only into academics, you’re not just a student, but you’re a developed individual and human being.”

— senior Jayden Chan 

For students like Palomares and Chan, it’s frustrating to not be able to participate in clubs and gain meaningful experiences that may help define who they are on a college application. Even for clubs that are still running in remote, meetings have now become quick check-ins rather than discussions about projects or activities. These brief meetings don’t provide unique stories that students could potentially write about in their personal essays. Missed opportunities to join a club due to the lack of accessible information hinders the strength of an application. So many “what ifs” linger, but for college-bound students, those what ifs aren’t important. What matters now is continuing to push through this odd time and making the best out of it all.

However, students who missed out on joining clubs this year aren’t the only ones facing lost opportunities. Student athletes looking to get recruited have had an especially hard time. 

Getting hit with the virus in mid-March would put this year’s current seniors as juniors during the 2019-2020 school year and if there’s one thing to know about recruitment for any sport, junior year is the year. 

Per the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), juniors are officially allowed to have open communication with all division schools and showcase tournaments are at an all-time high meaning that it’s the prime time for recruitment. Unfortunately due to COVID, sports were practically nonexistent for months.

Senior swimmer Alexa Szadorski who recently committed to Indiana State expresses how truly difficult it was to continue on in the recruitment process when college campuses closed and communication with coaches became scarce.  

“I was supposed to go on an official visit in April but it got canceled because of COVID … I was going to be able to watch a practice just to see the coaching style and the kind of things they do. It was an opportunity to get to know everyone a little better and see what the team was like,” Szadorski said.

Fortunately for Szadorski, she’d already had communication with a few different college coaches prior to COVID hitting, putting her in a better spot for recruitment than some other athletes, one of those being junior volleyball player Abbey Clarke.

Clarke explained that normally during this time of year, her club would be participating in some critical showcase tournaments to get exposure to the collegiate world.

“Right now, [the coaches] are basically relying on a bunch of film of you playing. Those big tournaments give you good opportunities to be exposed to schools and honestly not having all that exposure from all the schools makes it harder to get your name out there because it’s all relying on film,” Clarke said.

She added that game and practice film doesn’t truly depict to the coaches the kinds of qualities an athlete potentially possesses. 

“It’s definitely harder for them to see who you are as a person because they’re just watching you play the sport but they’re not really seeing how you interact with your teammates, your work ethic, what you’re putting in and what you’re putting out,’ Clarke explained. “It’s just harder for them to grasp you as a person instead of just a player.”

While recruitment has become more of a challenge than it has in the past because of COVID, athletes like Szadorski and Clarke understand that the dedication they have for their sports is all they need to stay motivated as they work through these unpredictable times.

In times like these, it seems many students have struggled to find such motivation, however, especially when it comes to standardized testing. Exams that have traditionally been held near the end of junior year in March were pushed to October of senior year, a few months after most students had already begun applying to colleges.

Senior Jaden Baker, a member of the AVID program, had been preparing for college for the past several years, including preparing for standardized tests, like the SAT. She said that to have practiced for months and built up an arsenal of test-taking skills, only to have the test date suddenly dropped, was dispiriting, and felt like hitting a wall.

“We were preparing all year long. I was ready for [the SAT] and I know a lot of other students were ready for it, especially with the preparation that we’d been doing. It bummed us out and it took a major toll on us that it was pushed until later in the year,” Baker said.

Following the cancellation of the school-administered SAT exam in March, students were thrown into a state of confusion, with test dates canceled left and right. Baker adds that with no security as to when she could take her exam, she lost the motivation to study until a more secure test date was finalized by the school.

“All that preparation just washed out of our brains. We didn’t know when we were going to be taking the test,” Baker added. “There wasn’t any promised date or any estimate until about two or three weeks prior, so within those two or three weeks, it was difficult to regain all of that knowledge, remember everything, practice everything we’d done for the past year.”

Baker also said that without as many testing opportunities and colleges adopting test-optional policies, she’s lost opportunities to apply for merit scholarships that might’ve helped her pay for college using the months of preparation she put into her test.

“Some schools are going test-optional, some are not. Whether students are submitting scores or not, it is important to give them those opportunities [for merit scholarships] and keep them open for a certain extent of time so that students can take their tests and send in their scores,” Baker said. “I thought it was a little unfair that some schools did close those scholarships, because what if some students got really good grades and wanted to send them in and get what they deserved for them?”

While Baker shares a deep disappointment in the numerous cancellations of those standardized tests that could potentially affect her college decision, senior Maddie Spain saw the cancellations as a blessing in disguise.

For Spain, she’s admittedly always struggled with performing well on standardized tests despite her GPA and transcript saying otherwise.

“All that preparation [for the ACT & the SAT] just washed out of our brains. We didn’t know when we were going to be taking the test. There wasn’t any promised date or any estimate until about two or three weeks prior, so within those two or three weeks, it was difficult to regain all of that knowledge, remember everything, practice everything we’d done for the past year.”

— senior Jaden Baker

“Honestly, I’m happy that the ACT and SAT were cancelled because it gives me more of an opportunity to show who I am as a person rather than being defined by just a number. I’m glad schools are looking more into what extracurriculars you’re involved in and what other things you do outside of school,” Spain added.

Spain’s mom Diane shares the same sentiment explaining that she thinks the test optional policy is a great idea. 

“I love it. I’m so happy with their decision. I actually think this should be something they keep and get rid of standardized tests. The work that kids do during their four years in high school should count for more than a stressful test,” Spain went on. 

Spain added that she’s already been accepted into most of the schools she’s applied to without ever having submitted a standardized test score and has earned some impressive scholarships based on her grades alone. 

As Diane Spain expressed that the college process is very confusing with all the different deadlines and requirements to meet. But what students like Baker and Spain are realizing is that despite the unconventional application process, they must remain focused to achieve their ultimate goal: college admission. 

Another source of concern for many students is the limited guidance during this process. While it may seem that all high school seniors understand the college application process, this isn’t true for senior and soon to be first-generation college student Tara Allmart. 

Resources like Common App and Naviance that many East students were already familiar with were completely foreign to Allmart until mid-October when she was informed by her counselor. She also explained that for someone in her shoes, she wishes that she had more in-person resources to help her navigate all of her different college options. 

“If COVID wasn’t a thing and we were in school, I would’ve gone to the college fairs. If I saw people who were advocating for their school and actually saw in-person what the benefits of going to their school were, I feel like that would’ve been helpful,” Allmart said. 

While Allmart admitted that it was difficult and overwhelming at the beginning of the process, her numerous Google meetings with her counselor have provided her with many more accessible resources to help guide her as she continues her college search.

These meetings with counselors have become much more essential to the college application process than in previous years, largely due to the lack of research opportunities and resources available to students. Without COVID-19, counselors would’ve met with students in the spring of their junior year in the PACK and in small groups in computer labs to provide an overview of the materials they’d need to submit and the portals they’d need to submit them on. This year, one major addition to the college application process at East has been Naviance, which students are encouraged to utilize for research and to request transcripts and letters of recommendation.

Counselor Laurie Midura said that between having to rely on the screen-sharing option on Google Meets and only having email as a means of communication, the limitations of remote learning have created some extra challenges for students.

“In a perfect world, we would’ve met with students in the spring and shown them how to use Naviance. It’s new for [the staff] too, not just for students,” Midura said. “We had to work through it virtually and use videos to show students how to use it and meet one-on-one with those that were struggling.”

She also mentioned that the switch to remote learning has likely made organization more difficult and pointed out that despite all of these changes, students have been doing a great job trying to adapt to the unprecedented situation.

 “With everything being remote, students already get a lot of emails, so [remote learning] just compounded it. Staying organized has been a little bit harder probably, because the number of emails increased exponentially due to all the classwork being online,” Midura added.

The lack of research opportunities has also meant that, for many students, it’s difficult to figure out where or what they even want to study. With several travel restrictions in place discouraging out-of-state visits and colleges discontinuing campus visits, students are confined to websites, pictures, and videos to determine which school they want to attend, which programs they want to apply for, and which aspects of student life they want to get involved in.

Senior McKenzie Kirby expressed her frustrations about the limited research opportunities, saying that it’s been especially difficult to pick up on the special traits that make a certain college unique and perfect for her. As someone who highly prioritizes the surrounding area of a campus and the amount of non-academic opportunities to pursue, not being able to visit campus has been a real set-back.

“Some of the schools that I’ve done virtual tours of are, honestly, in the middle of nowhere with just the school, and that kind of freaks me out. It makes me feel like I’m trapped, so I really want to be able to have a place to go,” Kirby said. “If I can’t be at home all the time, then I want a place that I can escape to, so it’s important for me to have a coffee shop or a restaurant, something like that.”

Kirby also noted that, without being able to actually be on campus and experience what life might be like at a certain college, she doesn’t feel as though she’s able to fully explore all of her options and decide what she truly wants in her college experience. She said there are several questions she might never know the answer to, and the idea scares her.

“Do I love that school because I want to go there and I feel like a perfect fit, because I love the environment and I love the way I feel there? Or am I going there because it’s the only school I know how I feel? I don’t know if I’ll ever find out,” she said. “One of my admissions counselors told me to just stay safe and that I shouldn’t tour until spring. But that’s so far and it’s driving me crazy not to make a decision. Having to wait that long to truly set everything out, compare the places I’ve been to, and then pick is crazy, especially when Commit Day is May 1st.”

With a limited amount of in-person visit opportunities, doing research online or with the help of family, friends, and counselors has become essential to learning more about different schools and the general college application process. This has proven especially important for junior Vivian Thurmond, who plans to graduate early.

Thurmond added that on top of sorting out her early graduation requirements, researching for college has provided an extra layer of stress. As a result of not being able to visit as many schools as she would’ve liked, she’s decided to attend community college and transfer to a four-year college when she feels more comfortable.

“I definitely would’ve been applying to four-year colleges with complete confidence that I’d be accepted. Once I got those acceptances, then I could decide ‘Do I want to go to community college or a four-year college?’” she said. “I’d probably keep telling myself that I could go to community college and that it would be perfectly fine and my family would be accepting and supporting of it. But I bet if I was offered acceptance to a four-year school that I was able to visit and fall in love with, I’d probably go there.”

Like many other students, Thurmond also expressed worry over being able to pay for a college education. She admitted that her academics might not be enough to help her stand out and earn sufficient merit scholarships, but at the same time, she doesn’t qualify for many need-based scholarships. As a result, she’s labeled herself as part of the “miscellaneous pile,” where clubs and extracurriculars are essential to helping her stand out.

Thurmond said her expectations of how clubs ran in high school were set from being a part of the Environmentalist club in her middle school. She recalls how her teacher would involve her and other club members in several programs and contests, providing a rich network of opportunities. 

“You could win stuff for your school and you could win money. It was this idea that, in high school, I was going to join all these clubs and the teachers and people running them would be just like that, and that I was going to find all these great things,” Thurmond explained. “But in my freshman year, I didn’t find those clubs. In my sophomore year, I still didn’t find those clubs. Now it’s my last year and I need to find these clubs but most of them aren’t running in remote and people aren’t joining them.”

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of applying to college in a remote setting, however, is the feeling of loneliness it can create. Students, like Thurmond, have found it much more difficult to step back and relax for a moment and rely on peers, counselors, and teachers for help.

“I think [not having a support system] is the hardest part of graduating early and going online,” Thurmond confessed. “We don’t have teachers telling us we’ll be okay. With the shortened periods and school being pushed back, they’re just like, ‘Go, go, go.’ They’re not really talking to us or reassuring us or telling us that we’re okay.”

And that lack of support has really taken a toll on students. As they transition through this next step in their education, the pandemic has tested nearly every aspect of their lives, including their academic, mental, and social wellbeing. Many have had a vision, a concrete plan, for the future that has potentially been derailed. Like Thurmond, several students have struggled to cope with the regrets they may have in the future due to lost opportunities.

“The only way I was able to calm myself down was building this picture of how college will go and how high school will end. As all of this goes on, that picture is being ripped to shreds. I’m trying to rebuild this idea of what’s going to happen next and who I’m going to become,” Thurmond admitted.

Samantha Anderson & Sriya Veeramachaneni are staff writers for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

Leave a Reply