2023 Hawai‘i College Guide: Getting Into College

Having an informed, personalized strategy is critical for college admission, especially since the pandemic.


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Illustration: Getty Images


Strategies for college admission have significantly shifted since COVID-19 rocked the world. While schools still seek out students with stellar academic credentials and glowing teacher recommendations, the pandemic pushed institutions across the country to scrap standardized testing requirements, roll out virtual campus tours and more. As policies have changed, so have tactics for gaining admittance. We spoke with a local college counselor and one who works with students nationwide about the shifting landscape, seeking their insights and advice for today’s college-bound students and their families.


SATs No Longer Required

The biggest change in college admissions has been the rise of test-optional policies. Once deemed mandatory, submitting SAT, ACT and other standardized test scores is now optional at more than 1,800 schools, including many of the country’s most prestigious universities, says Todd Fleming, director of college counseling at ‘Iolani School.


To be clear, it wasn’t the pandemic that instigated the change—it just sped up the timeline. Schools for years had been considering deemphasizing standardized testing, acknowledging its limitations in evaluating students and the inequity of some students being able to afford test prep courses while others could not.


Thus, when COVID-19 struck, and SATs and ACTs were canceled, colleges swiftly announced that students were no longer required to submit standardized test scores. The ability to opt out led to record numbers of applications at many selective schools—and lower acceptance rates. Suddenly, students who didn’t have test scores that met school averages were emboldened to apply.


Although some institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have announced that applicants once again will be required to submit SAT/ACT scores, many have gone the opposite route. None of the nine University of California campuses, for instance, will consider SAT and ACT scores in admissions or scholarship decisions. Other schools are following suit.


In deciding whether to submit standardized test scores to places where they are optional, students should evaluate their individual situations, counselors say.


“If a student has access to take a test, then they should do so. And if they do well, they should submit their scores because it’s another metric, another measure of their academic preparation for college,” says Connie Livingston, a former admissions officer at Brown University who now serves as a counselor at the California-based college consultancy Empowerly. “As a former admissions officer, in some instances, I did value being able to see those test results, particularly for STEM fields. If I saw high math scores and the student was applying to an engineering program, for example, that was valuable and confirmed their preparedness.”


Fleming agrees, saying ‘Iolani’s counselors still strongly encourage students to prepare for and to take standardized tests. “The beauty of test-optional is that students can look at a school and decide whether or not to submit their scores,” he says. “They can ask themselves, ‘Do these scores represent me well? And do I believe they will assist me in my application to this particular college?’”


More Financial Considerations

Along with changing admission requirements, students and their families have been wrestling with more financial considerations as college costs rise and economic uncertainties grow.


“I think students and families are now considering more variables than they have in the past,” Fleming says. “They might be looking more now at not just what they’re going to be asked to pay, but how much they would be comfortable paying. It’s always been a huge issue for most families in the United States, but discussions of paying for college are probably more common than they used to be.”


Fleming says another change he’s noticed is that selective schools—but perhaps not the most selective ones—are less predictable in terms of how they distribute merit aid. “We’re seeing merit packages that we wouldn’t have necessarily expected in the past,” he says. “It’s a college’s acknowledgment that this is a great student. We’d love to have them on our campus, and we’re willing to have this family at a lower price point to do that.”


More Students Are Applying Early

Another trend in college admissions, although not necessarily driven by the pandemic, is that more students are taking advantage of early decision and early action programs because acceptance rates are often higher, Livingston says.


There’s an important distinction to make, however, between early decision and early action. While early decision is a binding agreement—you must attend if you’re admitted—students applying through early action can choose other schools.


“You should only apply early decision if you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is your top choice school,” Livingston says. “I also caution students where finances could be an issue, because when you receive your early decision admission, you will likely receive your financial aid package, and 100% of your needs may not be met. Not all families are able to take that financial risk.”


Another thing to note for early applicants is that because of the early deadlines—typically in November—admissions officers likely will analyze them through their junior years instead of their senior years.



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Illustration: Getty Images

Upcoming Dates


October 1

FAFSA forms become available. The online FAFSA application must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. Central time on June 30, 2023. However, many colleges will require this earlier. Complete the CSS Profile to find more scholarship options.


Hawai‘i Community Foundation opens its scholarship application process. Check hawaiicommunityfoundation.org for updated deadlines.


The deadline for financial aid applications at most colleges.


Many colleges send out acceptance letters during this month.

May 1

Many colleges require that you reply with your intent to enroll by this date.



Rise of Virtual Campus Tours

During the height of the pandemic, with institutions veering to remote learning and campuses shutting down, college tours came to a halt. Schools across the nation began offering more virtual tours of their facilities and programs. “It’s a very positive thing that has come out of the pandemic that so many more schools have shored up their online resources for students,” Livingston says. “Before, you had the traditional in-person campus visit, which isn’t accessible for all students. Now, there are either live or recorded information sessions along with live Q&As and chats with current undergraduate students. Students can now go to college websites and take advantage of virtual online opportunities that can give them a thorough idea of what their life and educational experience would be like.”


For Hawai‘i students, the convenience of the virtual tour is clear.


“Not all of our families or students are able to travel and visit colleges,” Fleming says. “That’s a stark contrast to kids going to high school in the Northeast where they can hop in the car and visit five or 10 different selective colleges within a week. So when colleges were forced to offer more online, that allowed our students to avail themselves to additional resources that didn’t exist prior to the pandemic. There’s no replacement for actually being on campus, but it did help.”



Crunching the Numbers at UH Manoa (2022–2023 School Year)


$11,304 In-state tuition (includes Native Hawaiian nonresidents, active duty military and other exemptions)

$33,336 Nonresident tuition

$16,956 Western Undergraduate Exchange rate

$16,956 Pacific Island Exemption rate



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Photo: Courtesy of Tom Nitao


“Bring It On!”

Tom Nitao | Sophomore, Rice University


Tom Nitao was in the midst of his junior year at Punahou when COVID-19 struck, dramatically disrupting his and other students’ lives. With pandemic restrictions still in place, the 19-year-old began his senior year that fall, assuming the helm as class president.


It was hardly a typical year, with countless school activities and traditions revamped or canceled. Applying to college also was starkly different. For one thing, SATs and ACTs were now optional at schools across the country.


But as he explained in his commencement speech, he and his classmates rose above the challenges. “In a year that was defined by distance and sacrifice, only an unshakeable class could end it in arms together,” he told his classmates. “And while most people would end it here by saying something like, ‘Get ready for us, world,’ I’ve got a new message: ‘Bring it on.’”


When it came to selecting a college, Nitao focused on what was important to him. “I’m always open to trying new things,” he says. So he was comfortable with venturing far from home, even to parts of the country that Hawai‘i college-bound students typically haven’t flocked to. And since middle school, he’s had his sights set on business. (His dream job is to become a general manager in the NFL.)


While researching competitive universities with prestigious business programs, he learned about Rice University in Houston and its equally strong campus culture. He appreciated that students took on leadership roles in multiple ways, and he was impressed with how the school administration navigated through the pandemic, disseminating information in a transparent way and adopting restrictions to protect students. (With high-risk family members, staying safe during COVID is a priority for Nitao.)


After enrolling at Rice in the fall of 2021, he, like many other college students, attended hybrid classes his first year. It wasn’t ideal, but again, he was thankful that Rice was taking pandemic precautions.


Nitao advises students just starting the college application process to do their research. “Google the college you are interested in and find the student leadership,” he says. “This is a simple yet effective way to get the perspective of students at your desired school.” —Emily Smith



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Photo: Courtesy of Hawai‘i Pacific University


Tell Your Story

The normal flow of schooling changed for many students during the pandemic. Remote learning became the norm, grading systems shifted, and sports and other extracurricular activities were canceled or postponed. Admissions officers are fully aware of this and want students in their personal essays to indicate how they’ve been affected by the changes and how they’ve adjusted.


Fleming says the student essay has always been a critical component of a college application, but it’s clear now that a person’s story should not be solely defined by their activities. “A person’s story could encompass something from their own history, from their family, from something more than a rehashing of their activities list,” he says. “The pandemic perhaps forced students to see that they need to show colleges more of who they are and what makes them tick. The essay has always been the vehicle for that, and students now recognize that their essay isn’t just an activities listing, but a chance to reveal who they are.”



College Disrupted

Joey Cootey | Senior, Portland State University


College has been vastly different from what Joey Cootey expected after arriving at Portland State University in the fall of 2019. In March 2020, the Hawai‘i Island native, like college students around the globe, returned home because of the pandemic.


The 21-year-old spent the rest of her freshman year and her entire sophomore year attending classes virtually from her Waimea home, a setup she describes as isolating and difficult. “It was really confusing at first. I had just gotten used to all my classes, going to school in person and collaborating with my classmates,” says Cootey, a graduate of Kamehameha Schools on Hawai‘i Island. “They tried their best with creating breakout rooms on Zoom, but it’s not the same as sitting next to classmates and doing projects together. COVID totally changed the way I did college.”


Cootey returned to Portland State for her junior year, and although half of her classes were still online, she’s grateful for even the limited face-to-face contact with students and professors. “It’s definitely nice to sit in a classroom and see my professor and talk to my classmates,” she says. “I personally prefer in-person school.”


Majoring in public health, she is looking to become a physician’s assistant and eventually return to Hawai‘i to work in an underserved rural area.


Her tip for high school students as they consider colleges: Make sure you pick a place where you can do things outside of school. She chose Portland because she loves both city life and the outdoors. “Base your college choices on passions in and out of school,” she says.


Cootey is also glad she considered her family’s finances when she applied to college. One of the main reasons she chose Portland State was because of the lower tuition compared to larger universities. She said she’s paying about half of what she would have paid at other schools she had been considering.


And finally, she urges applicants to stay organized during the process. “Start writing essays early, have a calendar with all the deadlines and keep a folder with all your materials,” she says. —Diane Seo



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Photo: Courtesy of Touro University


Don’t Focus on Rankings

Overall, Livingston advises college applicants and their families to not be consumed by rankings. Schools should be selected based on how good a fit they are for them. “What the rankings do is establish prestige, and students and families want to be associated with prestige,” she says. “It’s hard to change that mindset, but I try to explain to students that this is going to be your home for the next four years, your community. Dig deep into what a particular college community can offer you, and what you can offer them.”


There are about 4,000 colleges in the United States, and the vast majority offer excellent educational and social extracurricular opportunities, she adds.


“It’s incredibly important for students to build a balanced college list,” she says. “You want to have some safety schools, target schools, reach schools, and maybe even a few of those high reaches, like the top 10 schools. But it’s important that every school on your list is one that you would be happy to attend, where you can see yourself thriving and excelling. Safety schools should not just be a place to go if you don’t get in anywhere else. You should be excited to attend them too.”


Fleming said his main advice to students is to think critically about what experiences they’re hoping to get from college, and to identify that in a way that’s not contingent on what others want or what they’ve heard but on what school will fit them best. “We ultimately want them to find a place where they will be challenged, but they’ll also be successful,” he says. “We want them to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. We want them to grow. It’s the next four years of their life that can create amazing opportunities for them for the rest of their life.”



Cg Getting Into College Courtesy Of Angie Lancaster

Photo: Courtesy of Angie Lancaster


Missed Connections

Angie Lancaster | Junior, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa


Now halfway through college, Angie Lancaster can’t help but feel the pandemic has denied her and her classmates the full college experience. After graduating from Mililani High School in May 2020 (in a drive-thru graduation ceremony), she decided to attend college at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Even prior to the pandemic, the 19-year-old chose to continue her schooling in Hawai‘i to save money and be close to her family.


As the owner of Fairypotz, a small ceramics and crochet business on Depop and Instagram, Lancaster was drawn to UH’s strong business program, which she hopes will help her expand her business. Ultimately, she’s hoping for a career in real estate.


Like with many other students, the pandemic was rough on Lancaster, especially on the social front. A social butterfly, she had been greatly looking forward to meeting new people at college. But with COVID cases still rampant during her first year, she decided to live at home instead of moving into a dorm. She believes attending classes online also prevented her from making meaningful connections.


Lancaster eventually moved into a dorm during her sophomore year and started attending at least some in-person classes, paving the way for her to make new friends.


Now, she says she’s trying to live in the moment and remain positive about her future, but that COVID and the current state of the economy have taken a toll. “I am hopeful that by the time I graduate within two years, there will be more jobs available, and the market will be better,” she says. —Emily Smith


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