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The college application process has long been a source of stress, anxiety, and even exhaustion for high school seniors. This year it’s also a source of confusion as students confront test-optional applications, pandemic related prompts, and unpredictable admittance rates.

The Daily Press spoke with three Samohi seniors and David Reynaldo, a leading college counselor and the founder of College Zoom, to shed light on how students are navigating these challenges.

COVID-19 essay questions: Answer them wisely

Most college applications now provide a space for students to discuss how the pandemic has impacted them. Essays pose an interesting challenge as students try to write about extracurricular activities that have now become inaccessible and wonder whether their pandemic related struggles are worthy of discussion.

“There are such limited opportunities for us now that everything is remote or digital, so it has been hard to write about extracurriculars or volunteer activities that I do online,” said Brianna Cornejo-Perez. “Also, with the coronavirus difficulties that we have, I’m sure so many other kids are going through even worse. I know a lot of kids are having a hard time being with their families, but is that a true challenge that can be seen in the writing for your college application?”

Reynaldo advises students to use any optional COVID-19 writing prompts to strengthen their application, but to avoid focusing solely on hardships endured unless their struggles were unique or extreme.

“Instead of coming up with a victim story ‘COVID happened and I can’t do my stuff’, we advise kids to focus on how they have been able to move forward, and engage their interests, and still stay passionate about things that they are up to,” said Reynaldo. “If you can use the COVID-19 explanation to not explain how COVID sucked, but what you did to stay productive that would be fantastic.”

Unpredictable admittance rates: Manage your expectations

As many universities are online only this fall, a portion of admitted students decided to either defer their offer or attend community college instead of a private university. These enrollment patterns have left many wondering what acceptance rates and timelines will look like this year.

Reynaldo believes that a preexisting pattern of colleges under enrolling students and the wave of COVID-19 related deferments have created “the perfect storm” for a highly competitive application season.

“People should prepare for last year’s safety schools to become this year’s match schools and last year’s match schools to become this year’s reach school. If they have the mindset of ‘prepare for the worst, hope for the best’ they will be better situated,” said Reynaldo.

According to Reynaldo, a recent trend of students applying to twenty or more schools has made it hard for universities to predict how many students will accept their offer. In order to avoid the risk of miscalculating and over enrolling students, universities now purposefully admit less students upfront and later fill in remaining spots using the waitlist.

“This is the year where students should be prepared to go into overtime and continue to work hard through senior year and wave off senioritis, because when they get waitlisted they will have to write a letter that says what have you done since you’ve applied that makes you stronger. I think that’s where kids are going to win or lose their college admissions offer,” said Reynaldo.

While universities that allowed pandemic related deferments will have fewer spots available this year, other schools had stricter policies and will remain similarly competitive. According to Reynaldo, UCLA only allowed military related deferments and students at Jesuit universities, like Loyola Marymount or Santa Clara, had to either attend this fall or reapply next year.

Test-optional: It really means test optional

Many universities have declared themselves “test-blind” and removed the standardized test requirements this application cycle, while others have made the tests an optional part of applications.

“I haven’t been able to take an SAT and practice SATs indicated that my score was supposed to really help my application, so now it might be harder for me to get into some of the harder schools I am applying to like USC,” said Jeremy Platt.

“When UC schools announced that they are not accepting SAT scores and ACT scores I was really relieved because my mom is a single parent and she has a lot on her plate. During the time that I thought I should be practicing for the SAT, there were so many other things going on and so many other expenses that we had to pay for,” said Guy Goes. “When that news broke it was very relieving and it was also satisfying because the fact that they did that shows they understand the world that we are in right now.”

Even though most colleges clearly communicated that they will accept students without standardized test scores, some families are bending over backwards and even traveling out of state so students can sit these exams, according to Reynaldo.

“This behavior is very unnecessary. Test optional really means test optional, people should not panic,” said Reynaldo. He advises students to not stress about finding a test location and emphasizes that even in regular years standardized scores rarely make or break an application.