Matt Alves knew getting into college wasn’t going to be easy, even in a normal year. At 18, the Framingham High School senior will be the first person in his family to apply; faced with a decision that could affect his future income, career, relationships and where he’ll live — in a year that has been anything but normal.

“It’s stressful and difficult, being the first person in your family and your family not being aware of how college actually works,” Alves said. “They ask a lot, a lot of questions, and I don’t have the answers.”

Alves’ parents are immigrants from Brazil. His mother cleans houses and his father works in construction. And though his parents encourage him, he says they can’t offer much help. The pandemic has made the obvious place to turn for support — school — far less accessible. It’s also changed expectations. Figuring it all out is especially difficult for students like Alves, because like many first-generation students, he lives in a community with high COVID-19 rates, and his high school is fully remote.

Alves says he has struggled to find the resources and guidance he needs, connect with counselors or even find someone to write a recommendation letter. He wanted to see if he was alone in this experience, so Alves sent out an online survey to other students at his school, and more than 50 seniors reported similar struggles.

“Students feel like we're not being helped out enough, and we're kind of being pushed aside by the pandemic,” Alves said. “We don't actually get the help that we need with our college application experience.”

"Students feel like we're not being helped out enough, and we're kind of being pushed aside by the pandemic. We don't actually get the help that we need with our college application experience."
Matt Alves, Senior, Framingham High School

Rachel Erikson, a college and career counselor at Framingham High School, said 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, including students, families and staff.

“When there's confusion for us, it creates confusion for students, too,” Erikson said. “Framingham socioeconomically is divided fairly greatly, so even getting the technology to students who need it and showing them how to use it has been really challenging. That shift to have everything be digital has been really difficult for them, and for us.”

Erikson says communication has been an especially challenging issue this year because the process looks so different, and there’s so much new information to pass on.

Most colleges around the country — so far more than 1,500 — have become test-optional, giving up the SAT and ACT test requirements entirely, because so many testing centers closed during the pandemic.

Students also aren’t able to add many extracurricular experiences, things like theater, band, or sports — most of which have been shut down.

And of course, without travel, there are no in-person school visits.

“Unless you really see somewhere with your own eyes, I don't think that you necessarily know the feeling of the place,” Erikson said, “to know if that’s the school for you. That is definitely something that these students have missed out on this year.”

Alves’ classmate, Framingham High School senior Bridget Donovan, who is chronicling her senior year with GBH News as part of ourCOVID and the Classroomseries, is applying to psychology programs, mostly outside of Massachusetts.

“I'm submitting applications to colleges that I might not visit until I attend them,” Donovan said. “It's really weird to think how that might be my home for the next four years.”

She says that reality — on top of every other agonizing aspect of this process — is stressing her out.

“It's just like … it's a lot,” Donovan said. “Hopefully you have the good grades to get in, hopefully you do like 12 dozen after school activities, as well as community service hours, as well as you're like, a good person, and you give back to the community. … Oh, and you have the money to go there.”

"Hopefully you have the good grades to get in, hopefully you do like 12 dozen after school activities, as well as community service hours, as well as you're like, a good person, and you give back to the community. … Oh, and you have the money to go there."
Bridget Donovan, Senior, Framingham High School

Erikson says applying for financial aid is particularly tricky this year, because most financial aid forms base income off of the previous year’s taxes. If a parent lost their job due to COVID-19, it will be difficult to factor that in.

“I've gotten a lot of emails from parents this year about having lost their job and kind of like how to go about that process,” Erikson said. “That kind of stuff has been really hard.”

The same situation is playing out across the country, according to Angel Perez, president of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling.

“The pandemic actually has continued to accelerate some of the disparities that already existed,” Perez said.

That leaves students like Alves with the cards stacked against them, statistically. First-generation college students disproportionately come from low-income homes, according to a survey by the Institute of Education Sciences, a research arm of the Department of Education. They’re also more likely to drop out of college, and so far this year, far fewer low-income, first-generation students are applying, according to a September surveyfrom the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, or NASPA.

For Alves, it just comes down to making the right decision, trying his best, and sticking with it.

“I don't really have money to keep switching around,” he said. “I really have to focus on one path and go through with it.”

Perez says he’s heard from dozens of parents — many of them wealthy and very anxious — who refuse to believe that schools are really going test-optional this year, or think it’s still worth going to great lengths to give their child an upper hand.

“I have spoken to families who are driving their children from Los Angeles to Utah because that is the closest open center,” Perez said. “We are trying 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.”

Even though wealthier students will always have more resources, this year the entire process has changed, Perez says, and that could actually level the playing field a bit.

“There is a level of anxiety that's pretty incredible this year because most students had a playbook to a certain extent that they had been told since they were first year students in high school, that if you do this, these are the things that you will need to be successful in order to get into college,” Perez said. “That playbook has gone out the window.”

Michael Lynch, the undergraduate admissions director at Emerson College, says this year the university is trying out what he calls a "holistic" approach to applications, looking at who a student is, what they’ve been through, and how the pandemic has affected them.

“We're looking at the whole student,” Lynch said. “That includes how much time they can devote to extracurriculars, as opposed to, perhaps, taking care of a younger sibling or siblings, or if they’re doing things that are needed to help support their family.”

Without SAT scores, sports or after-school activities, students are left with their grades and their essays, which Perez says is probably the most important aspect of an application this year. The essay is also a factor that depends greatly on character, as opposed to financial means — you can buy a tutor or access to a test, but you can’t buy a good personal story.

In her essay, Bridget Donovan wrote about being adopted from China, feeling like an outsider, and dedicating her life to helping others feel a sense of belonging.

“I am a person who wants to make sure everyone feels accepted,” she wrote, “to be a voice for people who feel like they have lost theirs.”

Matt is hoping his essay will show his true character: he hasn't always had perfect grades, he doesn't have every advantage, but he is resilient, and especially this year, resilience is worth a lot.

“I chased after everything I've ever wanted in my life, and that won't ever stop,” Alves wrote. “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 Matt Alves and I never quit.”