EASTHAM — Twins Anders and Ella Grimm are, like many other juniors at Nauset Regional High School, just beginning the college admissions process — and they’re doing it as the pandemic continues to keep everyone, to some degree, cloistered by the dictates of social distancing.
The twins are quite different from one another. Anders runs track; Ella says she’s more into art and runs a book club with her friends. But as they take their first college-seeking steps, the two now find themselves in agreement that the pandemic has posed unexpected difficulties, detours, and disappointments along the way.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty has been the disappearance of the classic campus tour. A visit is an important — and usually enjoyable — part of the application experience. But this year, due to the pandemic, many schools aren’t offering them. Instead, there are tabs on college websites touting virtual tours.
“Obviously, the virtual tours aren’t that reliable,” Mikey Terrenzi, a Nauset junior from Eastham, said. “Colleges are showing you only what they want to show you.” Normally, prospective students get the chance to contrast the version of campus life offered by their tour guides with the reality they’re seeing in their peripheral vision.
Terrenzi had always wanted to go to college in the United Kingdom, but he said that, without the chance to visit or meet with admissions officers, he has ended up ruling out that idea.
Without official campus tours, some Nauset juniors spent April break taking matters into their own hands.
Sophia McManus, a junior from Barnstable, headed off for the western part of the state. But her self-guided tour only sparked doubts. “College seems like everything I hate blended into one package,” she said. “I’m not that excited about living away from home. I slept away at Girl Scouts once when I was 11, and that was enough for me.”
Will Mulholland, a junior from Chatham, contacted Nauset alums at colleges in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and California and spent April break traveling to visit them. Mulholland said the fact that his school tours were not the official versions was a “blessing in disguise.” He got insight that was not just advertisement.
“And I learned that I really dig the vibe in California,” Mulholland added.
Students interviewed for this article reported varied amounts of contact with guidance counselors. Mulholland said his guidance counselor played a big part in helping him arrange his April visits. Terrenzi said that, with the pandemic, he feels like his guidance counselor “works double time.” But both students have parents who teach at Nauset and are therefore spending more in-person time at school.
“The school hasn’t offered too much support with the college process so far,” said Anders Grimm, who is on a hybrid learning schedule. “Since we’re online a lot of the time, it feels like we’re on our own. There’ve been no assemblies and only one or two information sessions.”
Another difficulty for current juniors who are doing virtual learning is that they haven’t had as much chance to develop close relationships with their teachers. Most colleges require two teacher recommendations of their applicants — and weigh them heavily in assessing their “personal qualities,” as was revealed by a lawsuit against Harvard University in 2018.
Dee Smith, the head of the guidance dept. at Nauset High, said that the school has been adjusting to this year’s unusual circumstances. “We’ve been using Google Meets for the most part,” she said. “For our college planning night, the associate director of admissions from Quinnipiac University did a presentation for us, and it was actually better attended than most years because families could just hop on their computers.”
Nauset High School also served as a test site for the SAT in March, making it convenient for students to take the test (and perhaps safer, too, as no one would have to travel far). To observe social distancing, Nauset reduced the number of test takers to no more than 10 per classroom.
At the same time, most SAT dates for 2020 were canceled because of the pandemic and, as a result, most colleges adopted a test-optional policy. This allowed more first-generation and low-income students, who don’t have the same access to test-prep resources as their peers, to apply. Tufts University, for example, saw a 35-percent rise in applications this year, the Tufts Daily reported on Feb 3. But with more applications, there were also far more rejections this year.
Most colleges have decided to remain test-optional for this year’s pool of applicants. But that does not appear to have set a new course for the schools. With the College Board back to offering multiple test dates, students are questioning whether “optional” really means optional. “A majority of the kids at Nauset are taking the SAT, so it would benefit me to send in my test scores,” explained Valeriya Mesquita, another Nauset junior.
Mesquita also mentioned that, due to the pandemic, this year’s junior class did not have the chance to take the PSAT in October. “We just jumped right into it,” she said. “But I think that made us realize early on that we’re all in the same boat,” she added.
Anders Grimm agreed, and suggested that most students haven’t lost sight of where the process, however glitchy, may lead.
“It’s actually pretty exciting,” he said. “Heading off to college.”