A college application season like no other is in full swing, with the pandemic reshaping admissions requirements and forcing prospective students to choose a school without knowing what the next year holds.

Minnesota high school seniors will not be required to submit standardized test scores with many of their fall 2021 applications, but they might have to select a college without ever stepping foot on its campus. Meanwhile, college admissions staff are deciphering how distance learning and pass/fail grading policies have affected students’ transcripts and extracurricular involvement.

The college admissions process has never been stranger.

“They’re adapting to the uncertainty. The uncertainty of high school but also knowing that they’re not even sure that they know what college is going to look like next year for them,” said Lael Storlie, a counselor at Deer River High School.

In some ways, Storlie said, the college application process has become more accessible for seniors. They can now connect with admissions counselors over Zoom and virtually tour out-of-state campuses. After months of distance learning, students have become more digitally literate and comfortable navigating such processes, she added.

But changes to SAT and ACT requirements have confused some students. Many colleges in Minnesota and across the country have temporarily gone test-optional, waiving standardized test score requirements for fall 2021 applicants due to the challenge of scheduling tests during the pandemic. The move has left students wondering if not submitting a test score will put them behind applicants who do in consideration for admission and scholarships.

College admissions counselors say every student will be treated equally, regardless of whether they submit a test score. This year, institutions are paying closer attention to GPA, class rank and course rigor.

Distance learning and new grading policies have made those metrics harder to judge, however, prompting college counselors to look further back in students’ transcripts. The loss of most high school extracurriculars has had a similar effect, making it more difficult to gauge students’ involvement and leadership.

Schools like the University of St. Thomas are looking for students to fill the gap with thoughtful essays or letters of recommendation. An essay could help explain why a student who performed well in their first few years of high school might have struggled last spring, said Al Cotrone, St. Thomas’ vice president of enrollment.

“That essay gives them the opportunity to explain, this was a different mode of learning, a difference for me,” he said. “The world was turned upside down, here’s the outcome.”

Keri Risic, director of enrollment initiatives at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus, said the U is taking a flexible approach to reviewing fall 2021 applications. Admissions staff are working with high schools to understand any grading or curriculum changes, just as they did over the summer when verifying final high school transcripts for new freshmen.

“We promise to treat each student and review their application with compassion and understanding and the greatest respect for their individual circumstances,” Risic said.

Students hoping to visit the U before applying will not be able to take a typical guided tour. They can watch a video tour online or venture across the campus on their own with the help of a downloadable self-guided tour document.

At St. Thomas, prospective students can use an app for self-guided tours or schedule one-on-one, in-person campus visits. St. Cloud State University is also offering in-person campus tours every weekday, though they are limited to small groups split up between tour guides.

“If we knew we could do it safely, we were going to do it because we want to be able to help these kids see a campus and make a decision based on more than just a website and what they’re hearing from people,” said Hannah Mikels, St. Cloud State’s director of undergraduate admission.

‘Dedicated and resilient’

High school counselors are working hard to help students finalize their applications. In school districts where students are learning remotely, counselors have held virtual check-ins and even made home visits, said Tanis Henderson, president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association.

College Possible Minnesota, which coaches low-income students through the admissions process, is seeing strong demand from seniors for virtual one-on-one and after-school sessions, said Sherene Judeh, senior director of program operations. Despite the stress of assembling their applications and applying for financial aid and scholarships, Judeh said students remain excited about choosing a college — even during a pandemic.

“Our students are dedicated and resilient young people and they are going to figure this out, I think, better than most of us adults,” Judeh said.

Jacqueline Martinez, a senior at Harding High School in St. Paul, has largely learned how to apply for college and file for financial aid on her own. Her parents are not as familiar with the process, she said, and her school’s counselors have been “bombarded” with student requests.

“It’s a little strange just because usually this kind of applying … there’s a lot of help at my high school,” she said. In a normal year, Harding High students can seek assistance at the school’s college and career center.

Blake Fox, a senior at Deer River High School, recently applied to Northwest Technical College in Bemidji. Fox, who wants to become an electrician, hopes college life will return to normal by next fall. He was an electrician’s apprentice over the summer and found the work is not something that can be taught over Zoom.

“It would be nice to get on campus and do more hands-on stuff,” he said.