The College Application Through the Quarantine Lens

Looking into quarantine college application experiences for the class of 2021.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Susannah Ahn

For many rising seniors at Stuyvesant, the last weeks of summer typically consist of going on college tours, preparing for interviews, and writing applications. Visiting campuses and touring prospective colleges are some of the many steps involved in students’ decision-making processes for which colleges to apply to. Experiencing the culture and general environment of colleges in-person is a crucial and anticipated step for many, but due to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these experiences are cut short. Consequently, the class of 2021 has had to adapt to the college application season in a now socially-distanced world. This new schedule includes virtual methods of viewing colleges through webinars, online meetings, and virtual discussions with college graduates.

For senior Jake Xie, the beginnings of his college preparations were guided through meeting his college counselor and through outside guidance sessions. After joining Y Tu Tambien, a program that mentors students through college applications, in March, Xie was up-to-date in his college application process after attending college essay workshops and college selection workshops. Throughout the progression of the pandemic, however, his interactions in the program became more virtual and more distanced. In an e-mail interview, Xie described his later experiences as “less hands-on.” “I had some college visiting trips planned, and I wanted to go on tours, but those became virtual as well,” he added.

Similar to Xie, senior Sean Fung’s college preparations were interrupted during the onset of COVID-19. Pre-pandemic college research included visits to colleges alongside web surfing as a way to get familiarized with their communities and physical aesthetics. However, virtual research has become more timely as individually finding resources and relevant information proved to be a challenge. “I must rely on online resources and a lot more research to the point where I would sometimes have to set aside days to do some research,” he recounted. Fung stressed that for school searches, college websites have proven to be more useful than ever in terms of webinars and college information sessions. “I would say I visit college websites a lot more now to figure out what the school is like and to go on virtual tours,” Fung noted.

Senior Margaret Woo also acknowledged the importance of online college resources. Despite the additional complications that online research demands, Woo attended information sessions hosted by various colleges. The sessions covered a variety of useful topics and are “a resource I didn’t use beforehand,” Woo mentioned. “These include short information sessions over Zoom as well as weeklong ‘Open Houses’ for a certain college.”

COVID-19 has staggered many opportunities, especially those that would have taken place in settings that are susceptible to the virus. Woo had planned on starting an internship at Mount Sinai Hospital, but its cancellation negatively affected her summer objectives. “I was worried about [the internship] because [it] was essentially the only thing I had planned,” she explained.

Unlike that of others, senior Alan Guo’s college search began after the onset of the pandemic. As a result, Guo acknowledged a possible lack of clarity in terms of considering prospective schools. “[O]ne big thing I dismissed [was] visiting colleges, and even now, I’m not going to get a real unbiased outlook at how schools are,” Guo stated. “I know about their name, how well they’re recognized, and if my interested majors are available, but it’ll be hard to figure out if I fit in or vibe with the school.” He described his search as rigorous at times, having to go through several variables through several different college websites, which simply resulted in “a really big headache.” In terms of the changes that COVID-19 will bring to his future experiences, Guo admits that “[N]o one really knows what to expect. I can only hope it can be as ‘normal’ as previous years [...] [M]y application definitely won’t be perfect, but that’s okay because it’s probable that no one else’s will be either.”

Senior Julianna Yu has also voiced her doubts on the true quality of information that colleges can offer. In the context of the pandemic, Yu mentions that “COVID has required me to transfer from in-person tours to virtual, which I don’t believe shows you the real culture [or] environment of the college.” To account for this, Yu has taken to online resources, utilizing sites such as Quora and College Confidential to view perspectives on colleges, all while taking location and safety factors into consideration. Yu has faith in her college application processes, stating that “I’m 90 percent done with my personal statement; I’ve started a few supplements, and in my opinion, I think I’m on track.”

Despite the uncertainty this pandemic has brought and the lack of in-person features of the 2020 college season, it’s important to maintain a positive outlook. Seniors agree that there are numerous advantages that a virtual environment provides and that it’s up to them to take these opportunities. “Of course, a lot of things are now virtual, but there’s some silver lining in that,” Xie explained. “For starters, my internship was virtual, which was super great because I could work from home instead of commuting an hour every day. I’ve really engaged with it, and I now have another thing to write about, maybe in a supplemental essay.”

In terms of the general college process, many seniors have noted their personal progress. Woo’s work on her application has remained steady throughout the summer. After finalizing her college list and organizing opportunities such as scholarship applications and fly-in offers, she has “written out multiple ideas for [her] personal statement [for the] Common Application.” Woo expressed her appreciation for the extra time quarantine has provided her as well: “COVID has [...] given me more time to brainstorm ideas and truly focus on the prompts,” she stated. “One of my better Common Application drafts is actually based on a hobby that I picked up over quarantine, so that’s one way COVID has greatly improved my progress.”

Likewise, Fung has been working on drafting his Common Application essay, though he feels he could have done more during the summer. “Everything being online has messed up my timing a bit,” he voiced. “I was supposed to have [an SAT] Subject Test on Saturday, August 29, but it got canceled.” Fung has still made the best of quarantine by starting an internship with Keep Small Strong, a company that helps small businesses gain an online presence.

The period of COVID-19 has been a confusing one, and as a reminder to seniors, it’s okay to feel as if not everything is under control. It’s important to take a break from the stress of college applications. Xie explained that oftentimes, “it’s easy to sort of grow distant and fall into your own bubble.” He advised others to maintain connections with their social circles and the outside world.

The pandemic has not only interrupted transitions into the school year, but it has also created new schedules for college applications and plans, which may seem daunting and unfamiliar for some seniors. However, the ability to adapt to these changes may offer a unique perspective. In terms of guidance, the alumni of 2020 offered some advice: Wentao Lin (’20), who is currently attending Case Western University, advised seniors to stick to a productive schedule. “[I]t’s definitely better to start [college applications] during the summer since you just won’t have enough time during the school year,” Lin commented. “You definitely need to do a lot of research to write a good [essay].”

Additionally, Amy Halder (’20), who is attending Dartmouth College, offered her take on the college application season for 2021, admitting that “I think COVID-19 will, unfortunately, make the college application process more difficult. For example, juniors weren't given enough time to get to know their teachers in-person, and in my opinion, there is only so much someone can get to know someone remotely.”

Despite possible disadvantages that may arise from quarantine, however, Halder stressed the importance of toning down fixations over grades. “My number one piece of advice would be to not obsess over your stats. Once your GPA passes a certain threshold, your stats do not matter. I know people who did more extracurriculars and had a better GPA than my own who unfortunately did not get into the colleges I did.” Instead, Halder advised the class of 2021 to focus more on the personal statement. “Focus on yourself and crafting your story,” Halder stated. She urged students to find their own compelling narrative and write about it while telling colleges what they can offer. The most important part of this process, however, is “don't stress!”