What has an inbox filled to the brim with promotional emails, six different Google docs with half-drafted essays open and very little work-life balance?
A stressed high school senior entrenched in college applications, of course.
High achieving students experience a culture of both external and internal pressure to beat impossible admissions statistics for ‘elite’ schools. In recent months I’ve lamented not doing something productive and unique with my summer when I was 14 or not studying just a little harder for AP tests I’ve already toiled over. I spent hours crafting the exact wording to explain my extracurriculars. My SAT score, which I should have been proud of, was just one more thing that made me a merely average applicant for competitive schools. Writing my Common Application essay was a dramatic affair that yielded a vast display of emotions: pride, dismay, exhaustion, angst.
The price of my education, too, has been a point of unease. Earning income for the first time this summer awoke and embittered me to the debt I will likely accrue from college. Cumulatively, people in the U.S. who took out student loans are $1.75 trillion in debt from their education — a number that grows six times faster annually than the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). On average public university undergraduates leave college indebted approximately $30,030. Nonprofit and for-profit private school students borrow an average of $33,900 and $43,900 respectively for their bachelor’s degree alone. I’m a summer lifeguard and local newspaper intern, so these numbers are insane to me. I could pick up all the weekend babysitting jobs in the world and still not be ready to face the cost of a college education.
As uncertainties around my future have mounted throughout the last year, the world feels like it’s crumbling around me. There’s the climate crisis. COVID-19 and all of its variants. Deep, dark political divisions. Ongoing and brutal discrimination against people of color. I question if the world I know will even exist when I leave college.
Not to mention, there are fundamental and inexorable problems with college admissions itself. Even with the Common Application, admissions are largely unstandardized and dozens of differing requirements for schools leave 66% of students applying to college stressed some or all of the time, according to a survey conducted by Challenge Success. In a different Challenge success survey, 59% of students reported that their college admissions stress has increased from the pandemic. Lower and middle class students are behind before the race even begins. Danny Ruderman, US News, reported that half of low income students who go to college undermatch into schools less competitive than merited by their academic records.
Emphasis on standardized testing can be discriminatory. The SAT and ACT yield gaps between the scores of white students and students of color, and the costs of test prep and tutoring services exclude low income students. Prestige is held above all else. “Elite colleges have become a status symbol with the legitimacy of meritocracy attached to them, because getting in sanctifies you as meritorious,” Jerome Karabel, sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and college admissions historian, told the New York Times.
With all of these troubles, in addition to those I’ll face after college, it feels silly to sit down and write a dozen ungenuine “Why our school?” essays in the hope that one or two colleges will recognize my objective worth and accept me.
But education, though housed behind the tall gates of admissions, is still a prize worth fighting for. What tool has more potential to foster change? Go to a college to gain knowledge on how to mend problems like climate change and poverty and injustice in our legal system. Go to study something you care about. Go to college to conduct research and begin a career that will yield a positive change in the world. Go to figure out how to make the knowledge and experience you’ve gained accessible to more people.
But first, finish applying to college. Buy into the process with knowledge of its inequities and don’t give it power over your self worth or potential for success. Finding the value in what you can make out of a college education and experience while not glorifying an unpredictable and broken system is the only way to stay grounded. Know that you are the same student and human being whether you go to your top choice or a safety school. You dictate your experience: the resources you choose to use, time you put into studying, opportunities you take advantage of. A bounty awaits you.
My admissions experience is over. After many hours of essay drafting and nail biting, I was admitted as an early decision applicant, a binding agreement, so I committed to my school last month. I have a financial aid package that’s doable. I have the relief of leaving behind a draining and stressful process. But most importantly, I have excitement.
Next year, I get to take classes I’m interested in, utilize state of the art resources and learn from brilliant professors. I get to meet new people and go to sports games I don’t really care about and make memories to look back on fondly. I get to call an educational institution home. I’m not a better or more special student now than I was before I received my decision, but I am lucky to go to a school that aligns with my academic goals, personality and family’s finances. Still, I know I would have this warm anticipation if I was going anywhere.
If you are a senior swamped in the admissions process, a younger student preparing for it or simply a human of this crazy world, I invite you to grant yourself a few moments. Sit still, go for a walk, pet your animal, take a nap — whatever floats your boat. Just commit a period of time to something you find centering and soothing to acknowledge that your hard work and resilience are marvelous. It’s too easy to despair in this strange world in these strange times. We’ll never get anywhere — college admissions or otherwise — without a couple deep breaths here and there.