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COVID-19 Impacted New York’s Most Rigorous High Schools’ Admissions Processes - But to What Extent?

Adelaide Sutfin, Grade 9, Staff Writer


The New York City High School Admissions process is notorious for being one of the most difficult in the country, even rivaling the college process. The Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) has been criticized on numerous occasions, and the specialized schools themselves are known for their academic rigor. During 2020, however, the application process had to change to accommodate for the complications that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the major changes last year was the pushing back of the SHSAT from October 2020, when it would normally be taken, to January 2021. There was even a period of time when students and parents were left questioning whether or not the test would be administered. According to Riya Sundrum, a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, “It was a bit of a mess, especially because they kept pushing back the test date, so we never knew what was going to happen, or if we should even be studying in the first place.”

Many prepare for the SHSAT through tutoring via private organizations, which also faced issues during the pandemic. Sundrum was one of the many middle schoolers who took this route. “I attended Queller Prep … for … the spring session, and that went pretty well, except then the pandemic hit, so it shifted to online,” she said. Though there was a pause in her tutoring, she ended up spending most of the summer of 2020 doing test prep through online classes, which she found unhelpful.

Sadie Hart, a freshman at LaGuardia High School said she studied “for fifteen months because of the extended time” but still found that “the test was harder than … expected.”

The SHSAT itself was given at students’ middle schools, rather than in testing locations around the city, as it had been done in previous years. Students sat socially distanced with masks for four hours, the duration of the test. Many found this environment more stressful, worrying about safety and health concerns. “The SHSAT would have been less stressful [in a normal year] because when I was taking the test there were a lot of other kids in the room, and I was worried about getting COVID,” said Hart.

Non-specialized high schools retained their use of a twelve-school ranking system for students, matching students with their highest-ranking school that accepted them. However, the requirements and ways in which schools accepted students underwent the largest changes.

In most years, high schools that required applicants’ grades would primarily review their seventh-grade transcript. But applicants in 2021 had spent a large portion of their seventh-grade year remotely, which led to the question: which grades would be used? The general policy Mayor Bill de Blasio instated was that, rather than seventh grade, sixth-grade grades would be used. This resulted in heavy pushback from parents and students who had been under the impression their seventh-grade year was the most important.

Two other important changes to the admissions process were made to allow for more equality. District prioritization was no longer considered in an attempt to diversify the top schools city-wide, and some schools reserved seats for low-income students.

Typically, New York City art schools would hold in-person auditions with unique requirements. However, all 2021 auditions were pre-recorded and standardized, so students only had to record one video for every school and track they applied to.

Some students prepared for their auditions in advance, like Hart, who said she took two years creating her portfolio. Hart applied for visual arts, so she took photos of the required pieces and submitted them through an online portal. She found the extra time to work on her portfolio helpful.

Learning about the schools themselves was yet another issue this past year. School tours, normally held in-person, were either shifted to a remote setting or didn’t happen at all. As a result, students were forced to find outside resources to learn more about schools they were interested in. “There is this one website that cataloged a bunch of the schools and had a bunch of surveys about whether or not people liked it or how it's going,” said Sundrum.

Other students attended remote tours, which they often found unhelpful. “I don't think they really influenced my opinion on the schools,” said Hart.

However, Hart also believes there are some positives to touring schools remotely. “I think if I got to tour the schools in real life, I would've maybe not applied to LaGuardia,” she said. Hart is pleased with her decision to attend LaGuardia and feels it is the right school for her. But she also explained that being able to see the schools in real life would have given her a better idea of the commute, an important part of high school applications for New York City, where students can spend hours commuting between school and home each day.

Now, as we enter a new school year, many are left wondering how the changes to the admissions process in 2021 will impact this year’s application process. Ila Berstock, an eighth-grader at M.S. 54, said she has been prepping since February for the SHSAT. Her main method of obtaining information has been through contacts within schools and the high schools’ websites, as help from her school has been “very, very minimal.”

Micheal Sorgen, another eighth-grader at M.S. 54, said the SHSAT and high school process so far has been “overall just a pain [and] ... very grueling.”

Ultimately, the changes to the NYC high school admissions process will be long-lasting, and many are left wondering what effect these changes will have. Thus far, a common theme has been stress. The amount of pressure NYC places upon thirteen and fourteen-year-olds during the high school application process is massive. While the reforms to the application system may have some benefits for students, the stress it places upon them remains a key part of their experience.

Former Mayor DeBlasio makes changes to the high school admissions process to adjust for COVID-19 restrictions.

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