College Admissions: Is This High School or The Hunger Games?


Elizabeth Campbell, '20


High school feels like the most important thing ever when you’re in high school.  And sure, it’s an important time in self development and discovery, you might make a few friends (maybe you’ll even stay in touch after graduation) and you’ll learn some important lessons, both in and out of the classroom.  For many, though, one of the main things high school is good for is that it’s the path for getting into college. High school is not a great time for many teenagers, and the shiny beacon at the end of the tunnel is college the place where you can study what you want, be independent, be treated like an actual human being, and acquire tens of thousands of dollars of debt.  Really, though, attending a well-known, solid university for an undergraduate degree is worth it in the eyes of many, especially depending on what you want to do later in life.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The process of getting into college is what we need to focus on.  The way we apply to universities and colleges for undergraduate study has morphed rapidly in recent history, and, frankly, it has become a convoluted practice.  To understand this practice, we must take a look at the history of the college application process, see what is currently in place, analyze the effects of this process, understand why this matters, and reflect on what we as a society can do differently.  

According to the Atlantic, “College admissions officers in the mid-19th century had it pretty easy. Since higher education was only a possibility for a small fraction of American teenagers, admissions decisions were more about who could foot the bill than who could do the academic work.”  For better or for worse, this is sure not how the college admission process works in our world today. It has become a complex system throughout the years, and we can see several distinct evolutions in the admissions process that have lead to this. The Atlantic reports that in the mid 1800s, colleges required that applicants were in “good moral standing” and that they take an entrance exam based on Greek and Latin.  If you passed and could pay $200 (about $5,000 in today’s currency), you were officially a college student. One hundred years later, universities began limiting the number of students admitted, and required potential students to take a much harder entrance exam covering a variety of subjects. By the 1940s, colleges asked for recommendation letters, the completion of an admissions interview, and results of standardized tests.  This is similar to today, with the addition of a whole lot more stress and a few other key factors, the infamous college admissions essay and one mess of a financial aid process.

Brennan Bernard writes for the Washington Post that he has noticed a seismic shift in the college admissions process in the past 20 years.  What was a mere headache for our parents has become a whirlwind of anxiety and self hatred for our generation. This sounds dramatic, but hear me out.  We start out as kids, running and playing outside, naive to the stress that’s to come. Hopefully, you get enrolled in some obscure sport like fencing so that you can become a national champion and have a “hook” to put on your apps, something unique that will catch the eye of the admissions officer.  You get to middle school. Hopefully, your parents cough up the cash for a math tutor, since getting that 4.0 matters as soon as you step though those high school doors… you won’t have time to play catch up with your grades later. Freshman year. Hopefully, you load up on those extracurriculars (and stick with them, and have leadership roles, and win state titles and…).  Sophomore year. Hopefully, you’ve had some sort of life changing experience while volunteering by now, or you come out of the closet, or you learn a lesson from your friend who has autism you need to have something to write your essay about.  Junior year. Hopefully, you get a 99th percentile test score on an exam you took on a Saturday, far too early in the morning, that will somehow define your worth and quantify all that you’ve learned in high school.  Senior year. Hopefully, you scrape together some letters of recommendation, smile really wide and use fancy words in your interview. Also, you better be either valedictorian or class president by now if you want any shot at the very best schools.   Admission rates are sinking, and universities demand perfection. And perfection is what they get top schools deny thousands of “perfect” applicants each year.  A New York Times article highlights Sam Werner of Norwalk, Connecticut.  After achieving perfect scores on his SATs, he was devastated by rejections from Stanford and Princeton. Mr. Werner was also on the crew and golf teams, performed in his high school musical and ranked third in his class.  “I kept wondering what more I could have done,” he says. “I realize I didn’t found a company or discover a new insect. I feel like it’s coming to a point where you have to do something like that to get into schools like Princeton or Stanford.”  Stories like Sam’s prove that student selection at high caliber schools is becoming nothing more than a crapshoot.

But why does this matter?  Obviously, you can get a good education at a place besides Harvard or Yale.  If we’re being honest, though, the opportunities that top universities bring are nothing to be scoffed at.  I would love to say I have no desire to go to a competitive school, but that would be a lie. I worked hard in high school, and these types of school seem to be a good fit for me and for my future goals.  Still, though, I will likely get denied from every competitive school I apply to. I don’t have a perfect ACT score, though it is good. I have a perfect GPA, but I am not offered AP classes that other applicants are.  I have plenty of extracurriculars and even leadership roles and national awards, but I will, inevitably, be not nearly as impressive as thousands of other students. And the crazy thing is, I don’t nearly have as much of a disadvantage as other people.  I am white, my parents can afford to help pay quite a bit of tuition, and I have a great support system within both my school and my family. I have way more of a chance at top schools than others, and my chances are slim to none.

The real issue we’re dealing with here is much bigger than it appears.  The pressure put on students these days regarding getting into college is really hurting an already mentally unhealthy generation.  According to a study done by the American Psychological Association, More than nine in ten Generation Z participants (91 percent) said they have experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom because of stress, such as feeling depressed or sad or lacking interest, motivation or energy.  The college admission process, which should be celebratory of a child’s accomplishments throughout high school, is just one more thing an already immensely stressed demographic has to panic about. The level of competition between top students is just plain unhealthy, and leaves kids feeling like utter failures.

So what can we do to fix this process that (according to CNBC) under 20% of Americans find “fair?”   It doesn’t look like colleges are going to be changing their system anytime soon, and thousands upon thousands of kids every year will feel worthless when they don’t receive a fat envelope from their dream school.  It’s an endless cycle that colleges have no reason to want to improve, so it is up to us to fix it. Companies like Challenge Success based at Stanford University’s School of Education are “working with high schools, teenagers and parents to help them redefine success in college admission and academic achievement in general.”  Along with providing students and parents with information about how to live a balanced life, Challenge Success works with high schools around the country to identify problems surrounding stress and implement helpful practices and policies for these schools. Initiatives like this are crucial to addressing the mental health of high school students in America.  We need to take some emphasis off of performance, and instead encourage our children to make mistakes, take risks, and discover themselves organically and imperfectly. We as students need to realize that we are in control of our lives, even if it feels like an admissions officer has taken the wheel. We have the ability to bloom wherever we are planted.