Editor’s note: We run occasional pieces by young people in the Puget Sound area, giving their perspectives. This essay is by Linda Yan, 17, a senior at Bellevue High School.
“Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts.”
These are the words that greet me when I enter my Common App portal, an undergraduate college admissions application. Every time I see this prompt, I have a pathetic urge to laugh. Of course, everything that’s happened in the past six months, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the ongoing racial injustice to the recent wildfires, has had deep and long-lasting impacts on not just me, but also everyone else going through the college application process.
As I continue to stare at my screen, I can’t help but wonder: “Do I even deserve to respond to this question?” Despite everything, I am still incredibly fortunate. No one in my family has contracted the virus or lost a job, and I have reliable access to online learning resources. I feel guilty whenever I complain about my situation as I know that I am one of the lucky ones.
It’s no secret that the college application process has become more stressful and complicated with each passing year. While Boomers often lament that we Gen-Zs are just too privileged and don’t deserve to complain, in reality, we do. According to CNBC, in 1972, the average cost of attending a private college, including tuition, fees, and room and board, was $18,580, and attending a public in-state college was $8,730 (adjusted for inflation). In 2018, that number has risen to $48,510 and $21,370, respectively.
Additionally, the emphasis on standardized testing has increased exponentially, as shown in the growth of the U.S. test prep and tutoring industry, which was valued by market research firm IBISWorld at $1.1 billion in 2019. And while the addition of more essays and open-ended response questions to college applications in recent years are meant to allow applicants, like me, to portray a more “holistic” view of ourselves, it also adds unwanted stress by forcing students to squeeze our identities into that of a perfect applicant, while still managing to sound authentic.
The current pandemic complicates everything even more. Elle Johnson, a senior at Bellevue High School, is particularly worried about how standardized testing might affect her. “When colleges say test-optional, do they really mean it?” asks Johnson. While the majority of schools have either decided to completely get rid of their standardized testing requirement or to waive it for a year, many schools have given confusing guidelines detailing that test scores might still be a good indicator for students who live in areas where testing is still offered. But in those areas, snagging a seat for a test is usually incredibly difficult as the current demand is fueled by all the seniors whose tests this spring were canceled. When Johnson signed into the ACT registration portal the day it opened in late August, all the spots for testing within a 200-mile radius before the Early Decision deadline (Nov. 1) were filled. Even if a student does receive a seat to take a standardized test, there is the added worry that they are putting themselves and their family at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
Extracurriculars, a huge component to today’s college application, have also been thrown into a jumble with almost all activities being postponed, moved online or canceled. Ryan Afzal, also a senior at Bellevue High School, had his junior year FIRST Robotics season canceled and his TARC Rocketry competition postponed to 2021. “Right now, as everything is still socially distanced, both of my teams have been holding virtual meetings to plan for the upcoming year,” says Afzal. The adjustments and cancellations of extracurriculars mean students are not only missing out on a part of a day we look forward to, but also that we, especially lower-income students without access to reliable internet or resources needed for virtual activities, could be left without an award or leadership position that would have strengthened our applications.
The ongoing pandemic also begs the question of what will I do once I get into college? According to recent predictions, our past lives likely will not resume until winter 2021, meaning that the first half of our freshman year would probably still have to be socially distanced to some capacity.
Brent Nakashima, a senior at Newport High School, voiced his concern about whether or not it would be worth it to attend a higher-ranked, but more expensive, out-of-state institution over an in-state one if everything was still online, as it is right now. “Previously, I had also considered taking a gap year, where I could gain some work experience and travel around Asia a bit to explore its culture, but with health concerns and travel restrictions it just doesn’t seem worth it,” says Nakashima.
As I write this piece, I can’t help but wonder what the remainder of our senior year will look like. Will we get to dance with our friends at prom and stand next to each other in person as we graduate high school, or will we be watching some sort of livestream for these events? Will we get to play one last sports season, or will those dreams become dashed, too? These are all things that we only get to experience once, and as put by Benjamin Franklin: “Lost time is never found again.”