Applying to college has been “a rollercoaster”

Haden MacDougall

Haden MacDougall, a senior at Louisa County High School, says his dream job is to build spaceships for commercial travel. 

“I want to design them so that we can go to the moon and back and to Mars and back,” he said. “It’s the next step.” 

Before MacDougall can realize this goal, there are a few things he must do first. Applying to college is at the top of his list. 

Even under normal circumstances this is a stressful time for high school seniors. This year, that stress is compounded with the looming uncertainty presented by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“There are still question marks about what next week, next month, and next year will look like,” said Todd Ryan, the high school’s director of guidance. “That certainly adds a bit of pressure, anxiety and stress to the entire process.” 

To put it metaphorically, MacDougall says the process has been “a rollercoaster.” 

Although some colleges and universities are offering an extended deadline, the timeline of the college application process remains largely unchanged – the deadlines for early action, early decision and regular decision for schools remain similar to previous years. 

MacDougall, for example, has already applied to Longwood University; Virginia Tech; and James Madison University, and is still preparing his application for the University of Virginia. The aspect of the process that has caused him the most stress is SAT and ACT testing. 

“I’m really flustered about it, and I think a lot of my friends are too, because we would take the test and get a lower score than we thought we would because we haven’t had any practice – we haven’t had all the other tools that were given to us when the pandemic wasn’t in full swing,” MacDougall said.

Because of the pandemic, and the already waning emphasis on standardized tests, many colleges and universities made the SAT and ACT optional for applicants, including the more competitive institutions. However, it remains one of the loudest “what-ifs” on MacDougall’s mind as he weighs the pros and cons of reporting his scores. 

Other components of the college application process that are typically in-person, such as campus tours and talking with college representatives, have also been canceled this year or replaced with a virtual substitute. 

“There are a lot of virtual tours, but I think that doesn’t necessarily give you the same experience of actually being on campus, walking through a dorm, or walking through an academic building,” Ryan said. 

In the midst of the uncertainty, Ryan said that he and the high school’s team of guidance counselors have encouraged students to look to the future and are committed to helping this year’s graduating class understand all of the options available to them, whether they want to attend a four-year or two-year institution or join the military. 

“Nobody knows what tomorrow will look like, but if a student wants the opportunity to attend [a college or university] in the fall of 2021, then they’ve got to apply,” Ryan said. 

From now until May, high school seniors who want to attend a four-year university will be finishing up their applications, submitting them, and waiting for the schools to notify them of their application status. 

The decision on where to attend college was already a big one, even before the pandemic disrupted every aspect of students’ lives. Ryan has been continually struck by this year’s senior class and their resilience. 

“I’m really impressed with the time management skills and the ‘stick-to-it’ [attitude] that our seniors have shown this fall,” Ryan said. “I’m just very encouraged that students are showing optimism and their life and goal planning haven’t been completely curtailed because of the pandemic.” 

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