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The Lockdown and its Impact on Graduate Applicants

COVID-19 has brought the world to its knees. Businesses have been shut, people have been locked in their homes, hospitals are flooded, schools were shut, universities were in the middle of some serious contemplation, and thousands of students who were writing their admission applications were deeply conflicted about their future.

March is the month that worries not only the admission officials but also students who have either received confirmation from their university or are almost on the verge of finally submitting the last draft of their much-revered application. For the admission officials too, it can be a particularly taxing period, especially because this is a crucial period for them to convince those admitted students to finally choose and attend their particular school. Additionally, everyone is working on more than one admissions cycle and by this time is already occupied for the next class of applicants. For most colleges and applicants, this period in itself is highly stressful with plenty of deadlines, submissions, and communication. Something as unprecedented as COVID-19 only made the situation far more difficult and chaotic in unexpected ways. Most of the experts who have observed the changing scenario because of the virus have said that the lockdown was a period where things were unfathomably changing daily, if not hourly, for most of the institutions and students (especially international students). For the universities, particularly, the decrease in international student enrollment remained a top concern.

And so, one is left wondering, how did the lockdown impact graduate applicants in this particular unforeseen period of our lives?

Many questions come to mind. Did it take away the motivation that students had towards studying in a university of their choice? Did it take away the rigour of filling an application while constantly dreaming about the country that one is going to land in? Did it put extra pressure to understand the worth of the university fees being paid? Did it bring a new shift towards how education could possibly be looked at? Did it incite fear due to the job losses that we all saw? Did it make students step back and look at the benefits of online education from the best universities around the world? Did it severely impact the mental health of applicants due to the uncertainty of what else they may have to do if it only gets worse?

The answers are not so straightforward .  The major problems that applicants faced during the lockdown can be briefly summarised as follows :

  • Disruption of routines and environment
  • Limited access to technology and tools during the lockdown
  • Severe issues emerging from isolation and restricted mobility
  • Growing financial concerns, especially about meeting the university fees and funding opportunities
  • A fall in the emotional and mental health
  • A decrease in concentration and mind space leading to an incompetent application submission

As the pandemic triggered the anxiety of aspiring college applicants for various reasons, the international students had it even worse. They had to deal with the pressure, anxiety and confusion regarding their study visas, particularly OPT visas, as most consulates and embassies had closed down due to restrictions. Quite a few applicants were also worried about the potential hardships they would face once they graduate due to the overwhelming number of lay-offs engulfing the corporate world.

“A Bad Time to Graduate”, a report released by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), has opined that most graduates from 2020 are at risk of not finding work that suit their qualifications and that they may even choose low-income job opportunities. In fact, the job market is expected to be a lot tougher than the one we faced during the great economic slump of 2008-09. It is poised to hit the likelihood of being employed by reputed organisations and has even begun to threaten the very existence of large corporations.

Only 18% of the fresh graduates are expected to secure employment in 2021 as opposed to the more commonly seen figure of 60% over the years, according to a survey conducted by Milkround. The number of jobs available for university graduates has slumped to 61% below the pre-covid level, according to ZipRecruiter.

All roles, apart from those that belong to the development and engineering industries, have seen a reduction in the number of openings according to Clair Jenkins, a recruiter for TableCrowd talent. In fact, she noticed that most of the new recruits were recent graduates who were given comparatively lower salaries than their experienced counterparts. Moreover, the positions offered to these freshers were either short-term or part-time.

What is even more worrying is the fact that most of the jobs that are available are low-paying. Even the ones that were very well-paid before covid-19 have turned out to be low-paying opportunities. It was observed that most roles had seen a reduction of at least 10% in terms of compensation. This largescale depression of wages is expected to last until the economy is uplifted, which quite frankly may take a while. The IFS report even mentioned that most graduates will “earn less than they might have expected for a considerable period of time”.

The answer, experts say, is immeasurable.

Much before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the academia world was already going through a severe mental health crisis. A study in 2019 mentioned that depression and anxiety were nearly six times more found in graduate students than in the population otherwise. A recent report by June Gruber, a psychologist, only reveals that the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 might lead to even more extreme pressure on academics, and therefore exacerbate the already existing mental health challenges. In fact, it was recently reported that international students are at a much higher risk of developing mental illness than many domestic students due to the linguistic, cultural, and most definitely academic barriers. Considering the usual high incidence of emotional disorders in university students, it can be expected that the current situation may cause a notable impact on this particular population. For instance, in a recent study focusing on Chinese medical college students, higher levels of anxiety were found associated with factors strongly related to COVID-19, such as knowing a COVID-19 patient. Likewise, data from international students have clearly shown a notable increase in concerns not only for their own education but also for the well-being of their families.

In an uncertain atmosphere such as this, it only made sense for the world to cling to different facets of technology more than ever. Zoom became the new normal and eminent universities found this a quick solution to the visibly breaking chain between them and their students. As college campuses closed, we saw a steady movement towards online resources and admission events. College responses were quickly focused towards virtual tours, creating more online content for future students and extending the deadline to accept offers of admission. Experts suggest that this period of a complete lockdown and a silent transition to a new medium gave a lot of applicants much needed and crucial time to think about more important aspects such as their major interest areas in their field (and the change it was going through due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Essential to feel comforted by daily routines

There have been quite a number of suggestions from different experts regarding how graduates and applicants can reduce anxiety. Elizabeth Heaton, vice president of educational consulting at the Bright Horizons College Coach is of the opinion that in order to reduce anxiety among both applicants and their relatives, most universities and colleges should adapt to the online mode of admissions and teaching. In fact, she suggests that more colleges should begin creating online content for students, encourage virtual tours and extend the deadlines that were set for admission. Familiarising themselves with the resources of an institution, particularly the faculty and the different opportunities available, would help the students to feel more involved.

Sal Khan of Khan Academy notes that students should turn towards online resources for continuity. He observes that although most processes have turned online, they cannot replicate the physical environments and that the not-so-subtle nuances can be quite appalling. Experts suggest that graduate applicants who have finally enrolled in universities should structure their days, maintain focused study habits and especially, identify a good spot to study before they begin their online classes.

Susanna Harris who has a PhD in microbiology and is the founder of PhD Balance suggests that a PhD can be incredibly isolating even in normal times. She is also of the opinion that getting support during the pandemic has become even more of a challenge, considering how coping mechanisms including meeting friends, taking a vacation or even something as simple as going out have been curbed by the restrictions in place.

An underlying sense of fear has overwhelmed people amid concerns over their future. Desiree Dickerson who is a psychologist believes that most graduates – in fact, most people, are trying to control what is not in their hands. She points out that people find comfort in routines and that these routines have been disrupted by the pandemic. A feeling of loss and helplessness is bound to take over our minds if we let it. We must, therefore, find comfort in the little things and be open to changes that include adapting to the new ways of working and studying. It also helps to take up hobbies and to include a bit of exercise in our busy schedules.

A few ways for enrolled graduate applicants to cope with the impacts
  • Positive mindset and resilience building

It is pertinent for students to cope up with the emotional baggage that might have come to the surface during this intense period of the lockdown. Majority of the students are trying to look at the bright sides of what this halt may have meant to them personally and professionally. Many of them feel that the transition to an online medium may ultimately give them more time with themselves – in their comfort area and hence this can be used towards better understanding their area of interest or the topic of their thesis.

  • Small steps, flexible reachable goals, and personal rewards

Although new routines have to be crafted, some basic rituals and routines shouldn’t be forgotten – getting up on time, taking a bath, and even dressing up for video calls with the supervisor. While a student may find a silver lining in the absence of the long daily commutes, another student can motivate themselves by initiating a personal reward scheme. This basically means that after reaching a certain target, one would reward themselves with an indulgent snack. Food definitely is a great motivator.

  • A personal work environment

It is pertinent to address their work productivity issues since most students associate the comfort of their rooms with the ideas of relaxation and rest. And hence, it becomes very essential for them to lay the foundation of boundaries and create a specific working space to avoid distractions and falling on their deadlines.

  • Break the monotony

The work-from-home lifestyle can most definitely bring monotony in the lives of various students. Therefore it is of paramount importance for them to find ways to break the monotony – dance, cook, read, play music!

  • Communication

There is no denying the fact that a lot of time with one’s computer can install various emotions that need to be spilt out. However, given the new normal that we all are living in, isolation can easily become a comfort zone. While its impact can only be noticed with time, one must be wary of its existence in our lives. It is important for students to communicate with their family, friends, and colleagues.

Conclusion

The uncertain nature of the rapidly developing coronavirus only means that all students and educational institutions should have been prepared for a variety of scenarios, but it is likely that apart from the mental stress of the application period, the virus has not had a tremendous impact on this year’s admissions process. Having said that, the impact of the lockdown on the economy remains to be solid and deep, and one can only wait to know how it will destabilise the financial condition of those who have applied in the 2020 cycle. Despite these unprecedented circumstances, experts are expecting the future of college admissions to return to normal once the pandemic is contained, and yet, we are to see the real impact that the pandemic has had on the job market and therefore the number of people who apply for graduation abroad in the coming years.

Date added
09.10.2020

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Global Ed

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