COVID-19 could benefit Class of 2021′s college prospects

BOSTON — Some will submit SAT scores, some Pass/Fail grades, all will have had their junior year in high school interrupted by COVID-19.

“There’s a big asterisk next to the 2021 class,” said Kim Penney of One-on-One College Consulting in Wakefield. “It’s not their fault.”

But the pandemic could wind up being to the benefit of this year’s juniors when it comes time to apply for college, Penney said.

“I don’t envy college admissions counselors this cycle coming up. It’s going to be very hard. Harder than normal,” she said.

Harder, because colleges will have fewer pieces of data to make admissions decisions on -- beginning with standardized tests.

“There are over 1,000 schools, four-year institutions, that are not requiring the standardized test, whether that’s the SAT or ACT and every day we hear of more adding to it,” Penney said.

Those tests were cancelled in spring because of social distancing concerns.

Still, Penney advises students who believe they can score within or above the range a chosen college would have normally required, to take the tests.

Another lost data point: Many school districts in Massachusetts dispensed with letter grades once classes went virtual, in favor of a Pass/Fail system that will have no impact on the GPA.

“I really believe your college essay, your resume, your activity sheet is going to be that much more important," Penney said.

And unless it has really changed your life, Penney advises steering clear of using COVID-19 as an essay topic.

“If you’re just going to talk about, ‘Oh I’m so sad I lost my spring sports season,' everybody has, right? Be mindful that you’re not the only one that’s affected by this in the common ways," Penney said. “But if it’s you that had to work to support your family? Absolutely that’s something to talk about.”

And if students haven’t established a relationship with their guidance counselor, it’s important to do so, as he or she will be writing a recommendation, Penney said.

With variables other than grades to consider, Penney says if the school fits, juniors should expand the list of 'reach' schools they're applying to -- because with some schools, it could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to be considered for skills and strengths not apparent on transcripts and tests.

Junior Matisse Carmack is hoping to major in musical theater or acting. And part of that application process is a 'live' audition.

“They might do something virtual, that’s my guess," Matisse said. “It’s going to be very different from being able to audition in person and see who I am in person. Because they’re not auditioning you for a role. They’re seeing who you are.”

Matisse got to visit a few schools before the pandemic struck, but plans to see a few more over April break fell apart. That's a real issue for her, she said.

“I decide schools based on the vibe I get. For me, it’s very much the atmosphere once I’m there,” she said.

“I’m loving the online tours,” Matisse added. “But it’s certainly not the same. You can talk to students. You can see the campus. But you can’t really feel like what it would feel like for you to be there.”

Given the faith she puts in her gut feeling about a place, Matisse admits it won’t be ideal to choose a college without actually visiting it. Still, she’s optimistic.

“I think in the end things will work out. But it’s definitely thrown a wrench into things," she said.

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