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College Admissions Proved Especially Competitive During Pandemic

COVID-19 drastically altered the landscape of college admissions, forcing the class of 2021 to overcome unprecedented hurdles such as record-breaking competition and an all-virtual process.


As April comes to a close, Berkeley High School (BHS) seniors face the fast approaching college decision deadline. Come May 1, many will commit to the college they plan on attending the coming year, with the hope of some sense of normalcy. 

Like many other aspects of life this year, the college application process has been made massively different by the COVID-19 pandemic. From the inability to take in-person campus tours to a significant increase in applicants, this college application season has been a highly competitive and limited one. 

For Anna Tripier, a Berkeley International High School (BIHS) senior, “The biggest difference basically was that I couldn’t visit in person. You couldn’t do in-person tours and you couldn’t … talk face-to-face with the admissions counselors from those schools that would normally come to Berkeley High and talk to you.” 

Academic Choice (AC) senior Davin Sieu, who will attend the University of California, Santa Cruz had the same experience, saying, “When I applied to the colleges I had literally no idea what college I wanted to go to because I had not visited any of the colleges, so I guess it was all based on academics for me.” Without being able to get a general feel of the school in-person, Sieu based his decisions solely off of the school’s academic offerings.  

This year, colleges had to shift their regular touring resources to a virtual format, in which students could see entire campuses from their bedroom and watch videos about the college. During the pandemic, because tour guides hadn’t preselected areas to show to prospective students, more parts of the campus were available to view virtually. “In a sense, I got to learn a lot more about the schools, but at the same time, some of the biggest deciding factors for all students is the feeling of the school,” said Tripier.

Though this college application season fell short from previous years in some ways, it did open up new doors as well. Tripier, who had originally planned to attend a four-year American university, found she had a strong interest in international schools and ended up deciding on Canada’s McGill University, primarily because the online process made every school — regardless of location — feel just as approachable as the next. 

“Being in COVID,” Tripier said, “I was able to see friends that were a year older than me [who] had gone through less common routes … get to the same destination. There’s countless different routes that you can use to get there, and I think that’s a big thing that, being online, I was able to discover.”

Jennifer Hammond, a BHS college counselor who has worked closely alongside students throughout the whole process, said that the pandemic derived more perspective for students: they’ve learned more about themselves and how they envision their futures — something that Tripier experienced when realizing her interest in international schools.

A notable aspect of the process undermined by the pandemic was standardized testing. Due to COVID-19 shutdowns, most of the originally scheduled SAT and ACT exams were delayed or cancelled. Many universities had no choice but to review applications on a test-optional or test-blind basis. 

Tripier, who had taken the ACT at the beginning of her junior year and before the onset of the pandemic, started looking at colleges at the beginning of March 2020, when she received her test score. However, she knows many students who had planned on taking the SAT or ACT during the summer of 2020, only to have cancellations throw a wrench into their testing options. When most colleges announced they wouldn’t require testing, some seniors let the idea go, while others opted to travel out of the county or state to take the test. 

Hammond said that, because the whole testing aspect of the process was removed, “In many ways, the playing field was leveled because testing, as we know, is not equity-based. … It has not been proven to be an accurate predictor of students’ success in college, and secondly it really favors students with resources.”

In a normal year, students with lower test scores can be deterred from applying to some of the most selective universities, but without requiring test score submissions, colleges have seen a significant uptick in applicants this year. For instance, Brown University saw a 27 percent increase in applicants this year, setting a record for the highest number of applicants the school has ever seen. Due to the test-blind circumstances, Hammond stated, “Colleges that are hard to get into, actually became harder to get into.” 

She also pointed out, “[Colleges] saw diversity in their college applicants and, therefore, were able to have a greater pool of first-generation [students] and students of color. Whereas in the past, they would have been unqualified maybe because of tests, because test scores favor majority and high-income students.”

On top of the unique standardized testing situation and increase in applicants, the number of seats at most given universities was less than the year before. The unpredictability of the pandemic deterred many students from choosing to attend college in 2020, pushing them to instead defer in the hopes that the following year would provide the concrete college experience they were paying for. As a result of the increased applicants and decreased spots, this year was especially competitive. 

Maya Kaneko, a senior in AC, said, “We were all already stressed out just from being in a pandemic and losing our senior year. I think that having to go through this stressful process on top of that was just hard mentally.” 

Kaneko commented, “The hardest part of the process for me was that getting help on the actual application was a lot less accessible. It wasn’t like you could just go to the CCC [College and Career Center] and get all your questions answered immediately.” Kaneko, who applied solely to University of California (UC) schools and California State Universities (CSUs), said she got a late start on the process and strongly encouraged juniors to start early with their applications.

Being at home, Hammond said that students have been able to determine more factors of their ideal future: their proximity to their parents, what kind of school they hope to attend, and financing for their education. Hammond mentioned how an online year has put more options on the table in terms of future paths for BHS students, and many are opting for community college, a gap year, or other less traditional paths for both monetary and other reasons. 

The college application process has presented multiple hurdles in previous years, but has been made even more challenging to navigate during a virtual year, when core pillars of the process like standardized testing and predictability of the coming year have been undermined by the pandemic.