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### Challenges Faced by Students in the Modern College Application Process

The process of applying to colleges has undergone significant changes over the years, with the college and career center playing a crucial role in guiding students through these transformations.

Upon returning for their final semester, high school seniors find themselves immersed in the intricate web of college admissions procedures. Emails carrying admissions decisions have started trickling in, acceptance packages have been unveiled, and some choices have already been made, though many are still on the horizon.

During this period, seniors have encountered the complexity of the process, grappling with terms like early decision, guaranteed admission, test-optional policies, and letters of recommendation, among others. These complexities underscore the substantial evolution that the 21st-century college application process has undergone.

Mrs. Susan Bolinger, the college and career counselor at Bearden, has witnessed firsthand the evolution of this process as she aids nearly 500 seniors in their pursuit of higher education. She points out that various factors have contributed to these changes.

According to Mrs. Bolinger, “The process has become significantly more intricate, especially as many Bearden students are vying for spots at highly selective universities, which entail a distinct application procedure compared to state schools or community colleges. I’ve observed a noticeable shift in the requirements for students.”

Gone are the days when students could rely solely on grades and course listings; now, additional materials such as recommendation letters, supplementary essays, and ACT/SAT scores are prerequisites for consideration.

“There’s a surge in essay requirements, and an increasing number of colleges are demanding letters of recommendation,” notes Mrs. Bolinger. “Over the past five years, there has been a shift in the stance on test scores, with many colleges moving away from that criterion.”

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic led many universities to adopt a test-optional policy, placing greater emphasis on alternative materials, particularly essays and recommendations.

“Letters of recommendation have gained prominence because, with colleges going test-optional, they need alternative evaluation metrics. If they lack a test score from a student, they look at other aspects,” explains Mrs. Bolinger.

Moreover, colleges continue to prioritize grades and the rigor of students’ academic schedules in their admission decisions.

“The paramount factor that has retained its importance, perhaps surprisingly to students, is the strength of their academic schedule,” Mrs. Bolinger emphasizes. “Did they challenge themselves during high school? This aspect often outweighs grades or test scores. Did they opt for AP courses if available? Did they pursue advanced coursework in science, math, or foreign languages?”

These considerations influence Bearden students’ choices regarding where and when to apply, with students familiarizing themselves with terms like early action and early decision. This year, Bearden seniors have submitted applications under various decision plans to a diverse array of institutions, spanning Ivy League universities, Tennessee state colleges, and community colleges.

Collectively, they have sent out approximately 1,100 applications to around 209 universities thus far.

Students must navigate the array of decision plans available to them, including early decision (a binding commitment to a specific school upon acceptance), early action (providing an earlier response from the school), or regular decision. Restrictive early action plans are also an option for Ivy League institutions.

For students like Joel Alcocer, who applied early decision to Dartmouth College, factors such as his affinity for the school and the availability of financial aid influenced his decision.

“I chose to apply early decision because I found a school that aligned with all my criteria, including programs of interest, a picturesque campus, a close-knit community, academic excellence, outdoor and athletic opportunities, and affordability,” shares Alcocer.

As more students opt for early decision applications, universities are increasingly filling a significant portion of their incoming classes during these rounds.

Mrs. Bolinger notes, “One notable change in the past decade is the emphasis on applying early for admission to more selective schools. There’s a distinct advantage in the early action or early decision rounds at most institutions. Particularly with competitive state schools like Auburn, UT, Georgia, or Florida, being part of the first round is crucial, or applicants need exceptional strength in the subsequent rounds.”

Nonetheless, a substantial number of students still choose non-binding decision plans. Ainsley Major, for instance, applied to in-state Tennessee schools based on program offerings and affordability.

“I considered factors like campus community, institutional reputation, and specialized majors while applying to these schools. Since I plan to pursue a graduate degree after undergrad, I’ve also assessed whether these institutions offer the programs I’ll need for my future profession,” Major explains.

Mrs. Bolinger advises prospective students to commence their preparations early to tackle the challenges posed by the application process effectively.

“Starting early is key,” she stresses. “By the spring of junior year, students should begin visiting campuses and compiling their lists. This proactive approach alleviates stress in senior year, as students already have their application destinations mapped out.”