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What It's Like To Apply To College During The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Applying to college is stressful enough under any circumstances. But for many high school students, the pandemic has turned the already difficult process on its head. Tori Bedford from member station GBH in Boston reports on what it's like to apply to college during a year unlike any other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Come. Come create and calculate. Shatter both records and stereotypes.

TORI BEDFORD, BYLINE: In your senior year, choosing a college can feel like the biggest and scariest decision of your high school career, maybe even your life. It's hard to decide where to go when every college promises a unique road forward. Like this University of Michigan ad, it seems to offer students the power to change the world.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Come find out everything of which you are capable. Come believe in something greater than yourself.

BEDFORD: But, like, no pressure.

MATTHEWS ALVES: There's obviously a lot of pressure from your mom and your dad and, you know - you're a role model to your little siblings.

BEDFORD: Matthews Alves is a senior at Framingham High School outside of Boston. This year, he'll be the first person in his family to apply to college. And though Alves says his parents push him to succeed, they don't have the experience to guide him.

ALVES: It's stressful because they ask a lot of questions and I don't have answers.

BEDFORD: Alves sees college as a way to get a job, and he's trying to decide between engineering or dentistry. Even in a normal year, that decision would be tough. But in a pandemic, he says, it's incredibly difficult to find the resources he needs and connect with counselors. He sent out a survey to other students at his high school, which is all remote this year, and more than 50 seniors reported back with similar struggles.

ALVES: The students feel like we're not being helped out enough and we're kind of being pushed aside by the pandemic.

BEDFORD: Framingham guidance counselor Rachel Erickson says things haven't been easy on the counseling side either. Instead of dropping into her office, students make virtual appointments using an online portal that's brand new to everyone - students, families and staff.

RACHEL ERICKSON: Framingham, socioeconomically, is divided - just even getting the technologies to students who needed it and showing them how to use it has been really difficult for them and for us.

BEDFORD: Alves' parents are immigrants from Brazil. His mother cleans houses, and his father works in construction. Statistically, the cards are stacked against first-gen students like Alves from getting to college. Research from the Department of Education shows that first-generation college students disproportionately come from low-income homes. And so far this year, far fewer low-income, first-gen students are applying.

ALVES: I go to a public school. Like, I don't really have money to keep switching around, you know what I mean? So I really have to focus on one path and go through with it.

BEDFORD: Colleges - so far, more than 1,500 of them - are hoping to make this year a little easier by dropping test requirements like the SAT and ACT. Angel Perez, the president of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, says some parents, especially wealthy and anxious ones, refuse to believe that schools are really test optional and will go to great lengths to give their kids an upper hand.

ANGEL PEREZ: I have spoken to families who are driving their children from Los Angeles to Utah because that is the closest open center. And again, what we are trying to do is to really go out there on a public campaign to let students know that this is not the year where you have to do that.

BEDFORD: Perez says the entire process has changed. And even though students from wealthier backgrounds will have more resources, this year might actually level the playing field. You can buy a tutor or an entry to a test, but you can't buy a good personal story. Matt Alves is hoping his essay will show who he really is. He hasn't always had perfect grades. He doesn't have every advantage, but he is resilient. And this year, resilience is worth a lot.

ALVES: I know that college is for me, and I've been working very hard for everything I've done. I have slipped up and it has affected my grades. I regret it, but I don't let it discourage me. I am Matthews Alves, and I never quit.

BEDFORD: For NPR News, I'm Tori Bedford in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAZLO HOLLYFELD'S "BONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.