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University Applications Spike Amid Pandemic

FILE - Students walk on the Boston College campus, Feb. 17, 2021.

For many high school seniors across the United States, an email or envelope in the mailbox leads to screaming, cheering, crying or despair as they learn whether they have been accepted to the college or university of their choice.

“This year, I chose to apply to seven different universities: the University of Virginia, Howard University, James Madison University, Penn State University, University of Michigan, Pace University, and New York University,” said senior Bekah Lott, who will graduate from Rock Ridge High School in Virginia in May.

Lott has committed to New York University, her top choice, she said.

Bekah Lott plans to attend New York University, her top choice. (Photo courtesy of Bekah Lott)
Bekah Lott plans to attend New York University, her top choice. (Photo courtesy of Bekah Lott)

The Common Application, or Common App, a nonprofit that connects applicants with more than 900 colleges and universities through a standardized process, reported that applications were up 9% this season, compared with last year.

But applications from first-generation students were up 20%, according to the Common App, to larger and more selective colleges. This was also seen with students of color and low-income students. First generation students are those born in the U.S. to parents from another country, or the first in their families to go to college.

“This really is the opportunity for the more selective institutions to impact social mobility in the way that they have been striving to do,” Jenny Rickard, president and chief executive of the Common Application, told The Boston Globe on April 5. “This is the year.”

More students applied to one or several of the eight Ivy League schools. Harvard University, for example, has received a record-breaking 57,000 applications — or 42% more than last year — according to the student-run Harvard Crimson news site.

More than 1,600 schools waived the standardized test requirement this admission cycle, recognizing the difficulty of taking tests during the coronavirus pandemic. First-generation or minority students, who typically score lower than other SAT or ACT test takers, are facing fewer barriers as scores become optional, encouraging a surge in applications, according to The Boston Globe.

“For my applications, I actually chose not to submit my ACT scores. I really didn’t have a choice due to the pandemic because my ACT was cancelled twice,” Lott said.

The year before the pandemic, Common App reported that among first-generation students who applied to large, selective universities, 83% included their SAT or ACT scores. This year, only 36% of students applied with scores.

For Esha Mothilal, her college choice is between Northeastern University, Brandeis College and University of Vermont. (Photo courtesy of Esha Mothilal)
For Esha Mothilal, her college choice is between Northeastern University, Brandeis College and University of Vermont. (Photo courtesy of Esha Mothilal)

Nitasha Mothilal, parent of first-generation high school senior Esha Mothilal who attends Foxborough Regional Charter School in Massachusetts, explains how her daughter applied to two Ivy League Universities: Harvard and Brown. Mothilal said Esha submitted ACT and SAT test scores, even though they were optional. The application fee for each university was $80, she said.

“She did not get accepted into any of the Ivy’s,” Mothilal said. “She has still not decided which college she wants to go to. It is between Northeastern University, Brandeis College, and University of Vermont,” Mothilal said. The schools are in the New England area but Northeastern and Brandeis Universities are near Boston.

The increase in applications without standardized testing has made it harder for colleges to sift through the data to see who would be the best fit for their campus, according to Bloomberg News.

“Although I don’t know every aspect that goes into admitting a student, I believe that without test scores, students needed to make every other part of their application stronger. For me, I made sure that my personal essay, my extracurriculars were very strong before submitting my application to schools,” Lott said.

Lott’s extracurriculars consisted of volunteering in theater and choir and mentoring.

“My essay was about my hair, and the struggles I have had dealing with it growing up mixed with a white mother and a Black father,” Lott said. “I went to a predominately white private Christian school for the majority of my childhood and constantly had dress code violations and negative remarks said about my hair.”

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects that minority representation at U.S. colleges and universities will continue to increase until 2036, when college enrollment is expected to decline because of fewer births.

High school seniors are not the only ones awaiting their admission results. Undergraduate students who applied to the Ivy League for graduate school are also in the same situation.

Alex Woodward tweets about her acceptance into Harvard and Yale Universities as a first-generation undergraduate student.

“Today I was accepted into Yale divinity and I am just stoked. As a first gen college student I did not think I’d be getting any sort of graduate degree let alone from an Ivy. Feeling very grateful,” Woodward wrote in a tweet in March.