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Global Ed

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

While the pandemic certainly triggered the college application anxiety for a variety of reasons, international students were most bothered by questions about visas and particularly OPT since consulates and embassies remained closed. Applicants were also extremely worried about the hardship they will have to face upon their graduation. For instance, a recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), titled A Bad Time to Graduate, suggests that graduates from the class of 2020 will be less likely to find work and will start off in lower-paying occupations than they might have expected. Additionally,  it says that the labour market at the point of graduation is likely to be substantially more difficult than back in 2008-09, suggesting a bigger hit to employment prospects and earnings.

According to another research by UK-based graduate jobs website Milkround, just 18% of graduates are securing jobs this year compared to the typical 60%, while according to US-based jobs website, ZipRecruiter, the number of available jobs with university graduates has fallen since its mid-February peak: it fell 77% by mid-May and is still down 61% on its pre-COVID-19 level.

Apart from this, wage depression continued to be a worry for those applying this year. As per a recruiter for UK start-up TableCrowd Talent, Claire Jenkins, a significant reduction was seen in all roles apart from those in development and engineering. While she has observed a slight preference for cheaper graduates than experienced workers, these roles look more likely to be short term or part-time. In fact, Jenkins has also seen a reduction in salaries by approximately 10% across all roles. Experts have additionally pointed out that wage depression is likely to last as long as the economy struggles. According to the IFS report, graduates can expect to 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

Elizabeth Heaton, vice president of educational consulting at Bright Horizons College Coach, suggests that in times like this applicants, enrolled students, and university officials should begin with a fairly simple proposition. It can most likely be very overwhelming to think about how one recreates an entire university day virtually. The reality is, one can’t exactly do the same. The truth remains that there are many intangible things about being in a physical environment that is difficult to replicate virtually. In a situation such as this, 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.

Even in normal times, a PhD can be extremely isolating, mentioned Susanna Harris, a PhD microbiologist and the founder of PhD Balance, a website that provides a platform to discuss mental health issues among graduate students. She believes that in the time of the pandemic it has become even harder to make sure students are getting the support they need because quarantine measures interfere with the most basic coping mechanisms such as stepping out, interacting with friends and family, taking a vacation, or seeing a therapist.

In fact, there’s also an additional layer of intense fear and uncertainty about the future. Many people are struggling to control the uncontrollable, believes Desiree Dickerson, a psychologist who specializes in helping academicians deal with stress. Similar to Heaton’s approach, Dickerson believes that it is natural to feel comforted by routines including daily work schedules and concrete plans for the future. Uncertainty breeds anxiety, she mentioned.

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.


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.

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