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College admissions process looks different, students finding creative ways to stand out

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MADISON, Wis. — The college admissions process will look very different this year due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Colleges that once relied on ACT/SAT test scores, student grades and extracurricular activities will now have to change the way they decide who they admit. Last year, many schools didn’t give out letter grades, extracurriculars were cancelled and colleges went test optional. Students are also applying to colleges they won’t be able to visit.

But many of them are finding ways to do well in a mostly virtual environment.

Phoebe Wrycha, a junior at Madison West High School, said the new process has been, “Very concerning. It’s scary because going to college is very important to me.”

Middleton High School senior Max Roquitte shared her sentiments, saying, “It kind of negatively impacted me because I had an upward trend in my grades. When they went pass/fail, it’s kind of hard for colleges to see how well you’re doing in classes.”

Both Roquitte and Wrycha are among dozens of students who are taking extra steps to impress colleges, despite the challenges they face.

Roquitte runs the BadgerBots program and started offering virtual courses for elementary-aged students. He’s also leading a virtual STEM club. Wrycha started her own non-profit student theater company and is putting on a virtual production this winter.

“I think I’m the type of person to get stuff done themselves,” Wrycha said. “If somebody else isn’t going to do it, I’m going to do it.”

UW-Madison’s Director of Admissions and Recruitment Andre Phillips said, “That level of engagement in the learning enterprise is really impressive.”

Phillips said he understands that students were cut off from many opportunities they would have otherwise had access to if it weren’t for the pandemic. He said his team is looking at what students did before the pandemic. He also advises students to write essays explaining how they plan to use college resources to advance their collegiate career.

“One of the best ways is to talk about or present, if and where possible, how they have committed, first and foremost, to continuing to educate themselves,” Phillips said.

While the pandemic has forced some students to think outside the box and shine, it is also creating challenges for some.

“It’s difficult for kids who don’t have the resources or don’t have the ability to go create something themselves,” Wrycha said.

Zach Galin, the founder of Galin Education, said, “Kids who struggled with the SAT/ ACT but otherwise were extracurricular superstars or were really great in school and got great grades, they were shut out of a lot of colleges because of their test score and now they’re going to have a lot more options. On the flipside, a kid who doesn’t do much outside of school and has a fantastic test score, they’re not going to be as competitive anymore for colleges that are going to accept kids without one.”

Galin also said he has worked with students who have started online newspapers, written for national outlets, volunteered on political campaigns, started businesses, raised awareness of social issues and more. He added that this school year has provided unique opportunities for students that they might not have otherwise considered.

“I think a lot of kids prior to this felt they had to do the clubs that were in their school and they were limited by what the school offered and now that’s blown up and kids realize there’s a big wide world out there and there are people from all over the world I can connect with. It doesn’t just have to be something based in school.”

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