Nylah Henry, right, explores which colleges she might want to...

Nylah Henry, right, explores which colleges she might want to attend during the college fair at Valley Stream Central High School on Thursday. Credit: Jeff Bachner

The college application season is well underway, and there are a lot of changes this year for high school seniors — and some that impact juniors, too.

Guidance counselors and educators across Long Island have been preparing students by holding local college fairs, meeting with them and their families, and offering college-prep programs. Some of the college admissions changes include  opportunities for free applications, a more digital approach to applying, and an effort to simplify the financial aid process. 

For seniors, "It's all becoming real for them," said Gary Campanelli, Hauppauge High School's director of guidance. "You get to high school four years ago and you dream of this day and it doesn't seem to be that close and the next you thing you know … it's here."

Valley Stream Central High School senior Nylah Henry, 17, knows this firsthand. She applied to seven schools and already has been accepted to SUNY New Paltz. 


  • The college application season is well underway and there are a number of changes this year facing high school seniors and some that impact juniors as well.
  • More schools are going test-optional for admissions, there's a more digital approach to applying and an effort is being made to simplify the financial aid process. 
  • Seniors should be finalizing their applications at this time, making sure all their letters of recommendation are in and that their parents' tax information is in order for when FAFSA opens up.

"It's a very bittersweet moment for me," she said. "I am excited to go to college and start the next chapter but sad leaving all my teachers and my friends."

The resources from the school "were very helpful" over the years, she said. "When my parents applied, it was on paper."

Here's what to know about the college admissions process:

SAT, ACT test optional

More colleges are going test-optional, meaning that students do not have to send scores from SAT or ACT exams. Stony Brook University and Adelphi University in Garden City are among the schools on Long Island that have taken this approach.

Mark Cortez, executive director of admissions at Stony Brook, said the school takes a "holistic evaluation of applications." The school, of course, considers academics and the rigor of courses that students complete in high school, he said. Admissions experts also consider community service, as well as extracurriculars in the application.

"We are looking to see if a student has sustained involvement in activities and were they able to develop leadership skills in those activities?" he said.

It's up to the applicant if they want to submit test scores, he said. "We want students to submit scores if they believe it is reflective of their academic progress and ability," he said.

Adelphi University is test-optional for applicants, and first-year students there are eligible for merit scholarships based on their academic achievement with or without testing, according to Jade Frevola, associate director of admissions.

"I always tell students to reach out to the schools that they're interested in and speak with admissions representatives and ask about their policies related to that," she said. At Adelphi, all incoming first-year students qualify for merit aid that ranges from $10,000 to $33,000. 

High school seniors — especially those who are applying to test-optional schools — should be mindful of their senior-year grades because sometimes schools will ask for midyear results, said Kathryn Sciocchetti, guidance counselor at Valley Stream Central High School.

Another change for these exams is that the SAT will go to an all-digital format for the first time in March, mostly impacting current juniors who will take the test. Those taking the ACT still have a choice.

The digital SAT will be shorter than the current paper-and-pencil test — from three hours to two hours. Longer passages in the English portion are gone.

Many high school students across Long Island already have taken the PSAT exam online this fall, and that went well, guidance counselors said. So many students are already used to taking tests online, said Jessica Baker, guidance counselor at Plainview-Old Bethpage High School. "The feedback after the test was that it was very easy to navigate," she said.

Financial aid application

FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students need to complete and submit the FAFSA form to apply for federal student aid such as federal grants, work-study funds and loans. Additionally, states and colleges use FAFSA information to award their own grants, scholarships and loans, Hicksville guidance supervisor Efthymia Rafaelides said.

Under the FAFSA Simplification Act, the application is expected to relaunch with changes to make it simpler to apply for federal aid, especially for students from lower-income families, according to the office of Gov. Kathy Hochul. The State University of New York launched the SUNY FAFSA Completion Corps to help with the application. 

The application used to open in October, but now is expected to open in December. High school seniors will be allowed to add 20 schools at one time rather than only 10.

Although the deadline for FAFSA is June 30, high school guidance counselors recommend that students finish the form within the first few weeks, because financial aid can run out. Even if students think they will not qualify for any aid — it's still a good idea to complete the application.

Michelle Villa, Locust Valley’s director of school counseling, advises students and their families to do so. "You never know," she said. "At least you could secure an unsubsidized direct loan," she said.

Common app and waivers

The Common Application is a website that allows students to apply to multiple colleges at once. More than 1,000 colleges and universities are now accepting applications via CommonApp, making it easier for students to apply, Rafaelides said. Application fee waivers for the Common Application can be approved for low-income students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program (students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch). 

Last month, the State University of New York, the City University of New York, and more than 40 private colleges and universities in the state offered free application opportunities for high school seniors. 

While that free application window has closed, guidance counselors said some schools will still offer waivers either if a student goes on a college tour or contacts the admissions office.

Paying for college

Students and their families should look at the return-on-investment during the college selection process, Villa said. They should look at the percentage of first-time students who stay for the second year and at the percentage of students who graduate in four years. Students should research job placement and the average starting salaries of graduates. Several websites provide this data, she said.

Ron Rini, guidance counselor at Valley Stream Central, said students should consider applying to a financial "safety" school as financial aid awards typically don't come out until the spring.

"Make sure the college plan is financially feasible for the family," he said.

Students have a limited amount they can borrow during their undergraduate education.

First-year students can borrow a maximum of $5,500, second-year students can borrow a maximum of $6,500, and third year and beyond can borrow up to $7,500, Rafaelides said. Many families also take a Parent Plus Loan to cover the cost of tuition. Parents are able to borrow up to the cost of attendance. 

What seniors should be doing now

For seniors, this time of year represents "a mix of nervous excitement and a little bit of anxiety," Shoreham-Wading River High School Principal Frank Pugliese said. "For many of them, this is the first time they get to explore outside of their comfort zone and make some important decisions."

Seniors should be finalizing their applications at this time, making sure all their letters of recommendation are in and that their parents' tax information is in order for when the FAFSA process opens. Campanelli advises them to get their applications in early and enjoy the rest of their senior year, but not to neglect those final-year grades.

Educators say seniors should not be afraid to ask for assistance.

In Hicksville, "We are seeing seniors all day long right now in the guidance office," Rafaelides said. "It's down to the wire."

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