Co-written by Charlotte Twetten
The spring of junior year has attained an almost ritualistic importance in high schools across the nation. Each year, tens of thousands of fresh-faced students make the pilgrimage to the nation’s institutions of higher learning, eager to impress the keyholders of the gateway to their future.
This annual throng of hopeful suppliants is symptomatic of a national obsession with college admissions, one revolving around rankings, prestige and the desire to make the best possible impression
Obsession over the closed-door inner-workings of admissions committees takes an overlooked toll on the growing population of high schoolers that must brave the application process.
“From the start, we as high school students understand that we need to be competitive to get into college. We’re given the rules [from colleges and counselors] and a
re expected to play by them,” senior Jasmine Mao said. “It’s like a cruel game.”
A large portion of the problems with college admissions stems from the sheer number of applications submitted. In an almost self-perpetuating cycle, nervous seniors see their only choice in the face of ever-more competitive admissions as filling out more applications. A little over 1 in 4 seniors will submit more than seven, and it’s not uncommon to see numbers upwards of a dozen.
Colleges themselves encourage this, sending a dizzying amount of online and paper mail to massive lists of names bought from education conglomerates like the College Board. In the hopes of augmenting profits made from application fees, universities aggressively court high school students from their freshman year onwards. National ranking systems, such as the US World News/Report college rankings, take into account acceptance rate, thus it is very much in the best interest of colleges to solicit as many applications as possible, even from students who have little chance of receiving an offer of admission.
This practice has significant repercussions on the mental and financial well-being of students.
“There’s way too much pressure to go to these schools where everyone’s like, ‘only the best of the best get to go here,’” junior Chase Dawson said.
In spite of this, schools continue to drive down acceptance rates and experience corresponding spikes in prestige. Stanford University, the current titleholder of the lowest undergraduate acceptance rate, received 43,997 applications in 2016 and in turn gave 2,063 offers of admission—an unprecedentedly low acceptance rate of 4.69%.
The implication of plummeting acceptance rates is not lost on students.
“[I started thinking about college] literally freshman year,” Dawson said. “I got really worried about whether I had an A or not.”
It’s not just grades that high school students have to polish and then peacock on the Common Application. The current admissions process also demands a bevy of impressive extracurriculars and awards to simply be considered as a serious candidate.
Mao reported feeling intense pressure to have a perfectly padded resume to ensure that she gave colleges what they wanted.
“There comes a point where you push kids so much they no longer value their education,” Mao said.
Even the physical wellness of students is affected.
“My biggest source of stress is just trying to get enough sleep,” said Dawson.
The oligopoly on college entrance and Advanced Placement examinations held by the College Board the ACT is another source of concern.
“They are monetizing standardized tests that are required for getting into college,” said Mao.
Her frustration reflects the feelings of many who have taken the SAT or ACT and then wondered at the fairness of the system.
However, while most students wearily accept the unreasonable demands and taxing workload, some have said enough. A growing movement is determined to return high school to its place as a time of freedom, exploration and the savoring of lingering youth, not four years concerned with the entry requirements to institutions of higher education.
“We need to start emphasizing that it’s okay not to be everything,” Mao said. “We need to start promoting high school as a time to learn about yourself, and not [a time to do] what colleges expect.”