Aspiring collegians navigate COVID-19

Test scores not required for admission, but barriers to campus visits complicate the process

Hinsdale Central’s director of counseling and social work Jen Regnier said her department has processed almost 6,000 college applications from among the school’s roughly 650 seniors.

That’s higher than a typical year, and she suspects the current test-optional policy that a majority of U.S. colleges and universities have adopted during the pandemic is a big reason.

“It does seem like some kids are applying to more schools than normal,” said Regnier. “It’s allowed kids to reach for more schools that maybe they wouldn’t have in the past.”

Over half of the senior class applied to the University of Illinois, she reported, a couple percentage points above an average year. University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, University of Michigan and University of Iowa rounded out the top five as of late December.

College visits and interviews with admission reps were kept virtual this year as COVID-19 remained volatile.

“If things got worse, we didn’t want to pull the plug on in-person meeting at the last minute,” Regnier said. “We haven’t been able to welcome college reps on campus in over two years.”

That is poised to change in March, however, with a planned in-person college fair at Central.

Senior Bella Insignares said the restrictions compelled her to keep an open mind.

“I was so set on what I thought I wanted that I never considered all of the amazing schools that are out there. That proved crucial when COVID upset my plans to visit schools and when we collectively had to switch to online information sessions and tours,” Insignares said, noting one unique virtual tour. “I did an impromptu (University of Illinois) interview with my alumni mom as my tour guide.”

Hinsdale’s Kim Anderson, founder of Spotlight College Consulting who has been working with Insignares, believes colleges are keeping track of the performance of students who were admitted without test scores.

“They’re trying to verify the success of that policy, and whether test scores are an indicator of success at the university or not,” she said.

Many will likely return to mandatory test scores eventually, Anderson predicted, if simply to lighten the workload.

“They’re seeing their application numbers rising by 10, 20, even 30 percent,” Anderson related, with some delaying applicant notification in order to get through all the submissions. “They’re not able to manage it.”

But she said the flipside for other institutions is their recognition that greater openness is fostering a more well-rounded enrollment.

“They’ll say, ‘We benefit so much more by providing that access to students who traditionally wouldn’t apply because it increases student body diversity, which really brings such richness to the campus experience,” she said.

Anderson advises her student clients not to fixate on prestige — and to make a physical visit if at all possible, even if it’s outdoors only.

“I really try and get them to focus on the fit and not the ranking,” she said. “It just seems like a risky proposition if you haven’t visited in advance.”

Insignares tried to follow the suitability-over-status mindset.

“I think that the pandemic allowed me to step back and reevaluate my priorities — what I wanted to do in the future, the activities I valued, how I wanted to spend my time,” she said. “That allowed me to go into college applications with a more solid idea of what I wanted to pursue, both academically and socially, and also of who I was at that moment.”

With the mental health of students a much-discussed topic during the pandemic, Regnier said making standardized testing optional has provided some relief.

“For a lot of kids I think it makes the process a little less stressful,” she said.

As for Insignares, she’s waiting to hear from her top choice after being deferred for early decision. But she’s not discouraged.

“All I can do is keep showing interest and cross my fingers,” she said. “Even though it’s still my first choice school, and writing supplementals can get tedious, I’m thankful I got to go through the rest of the application process. Besides, now I get to see where else I can get in.”

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean