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What It's Like To Apply To College In The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's the time of year when high schoolers who are applying to college try to stand out - maybe as captain of a school sports team or earning a high SAT score or volunteering. But seniors this year are without all the normal extracurriculars to highlight. St. Louis Public Radio's Ryan Delaney reports on the unique challenge of pandemic college applications.

RYAN DELANEY, BYLINE: Aldo Estrada is a senior at McCluer High School outside of St. Louis, and he's taking a tour of UCLA but not in person. This is not the year for the college road trip. So he's resorting to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You can click on the front-facing arrow to start walking around our campus. You can jump to the next stop by clicking on the next stop button.

ALDO ESTRADA: It's basically just looking at pictures. I don't know. It's not the same thing. I would much rather be in California looking at dorms and stuff.

DELANEY: But the pandemic also has Estrada wanting to stay closer to family.

ESTRADA: Because I started to realize if stuff like this were to actually happen again, like, I wouldn't have the quickest way to get home and stuff.

DELANEY: As students reconsider where to apply, they're also having to change what they highlight on their applications. Testing dates for standardized exams - the ACT and SAT - were repeatedly canceled in the spring and summer. Senior Chris Campos wanted to boost his score from junior year to have a better shot at getting into the University of Miami.

CHRIS CAMPOS: And it was difficult because they kept canceling the ACT, so I had to keep re-signing up. And it just kept getting canceled and canceled.

DELANEY: Luckily for him, more colleges are making standardized tests optional on their applications and instead putting more emphasis on students' grades. But that's a problem this year, too. Jamie Moynihan from the college counseling firm AcceptU says more schools were pass-fail this year.

JAMIE MOYNIHAN: And so there was this kind of big hole in the review process for colleges where we don't see your junior year, second semester, and we don't have standardized testing. And so it creates a lot of hurdles.

DELANEY: In normal times, extracurriculars can make up for academics. But this year, some schools canceled fall sports and put after-school activities on hold. Lotus MacDonald plans to attend Truman State University, where her mom went. She was going to highlight being a part of her school's spirit squad on her application.

LOTUS MACDONALD: But not having that this year really made me re-evaluate what I would talk about.

DELANEY: She decided to focus instead on how she got involved in anti-racism activism at her school.

Use of the Common Application by first-generation students also dropped this fall - so have financial aid paperwork filings. Both are signs that fewer low-income students are considering college. Many high school seniors are struggling to stay motivated for classwork.

College adviser Nikki DeLeo is with College Bound, which works with low-income and first-generation students.

NIKKI DELEO: Normally, what we do is we sit down with students. We walk through the Common App. We walk through different, like, schools' websites and even, like, help them physically do a FAFSA. We're doing all of that over the phone and video screen. And so that's really hard.

DELANEY: But while colleges are being flexible for seniors around tests and activities, DeLeo advises applicants to steer clear of writing about the pandemic.

DELEO: Every teenager wants to write about COVID (laughter) so - and, like, just encouraging them to, like, try to think about other things that have happened in their life and write about those things.

DELANEY: Education strategist Michael Horn says the big dip in enrollment at campuses this fall could work to some students' advantage.

MICHAEL HORN: They are much more in the position of being able to choose the college because a lot of these colleges are desperate for them to show up and pay.

DELANEY: For most applicants, the application deadline is January 1.

For NPR News, I'm Ryan Delaney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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