The Flawed System of College Admissions

Hannah Su, Styles Editor

“Discrimination,” “quotas,” and “chance” are words heard and used prevalently when ranting about the “broken system” that is our gateway to some of the most prestigious institutions of learning. Perhaps as a Chinese-American girl, I am obligated to use this platform to discuss issues such as the 2014 Massachusetts lawsuit filed by Asian American students against Harvard for discrimination. However, that is not what I am going to do, because there is a larger problem at hand—one which impacts not only a specific community, but also nearly everyone interested in higher education, regardless of race, gender, or other demographic features. From the first day of our four years in high school, the college admissions process forces us to choose between two things. We can either explore our own identities to find our true passions, or we can use these four years to force ourselves into a mold that embodies “the perfect applicant.” By choosing the latter, we must conform to the system and choose the right extracurriculars, take the right classes, and be the right student in the eyes of highly selective colleges.

High school is a chunk of four years that makes up much of the “coming of age” period in our lives. In an ideal world, it is the window of time where we discover passions to pursue and develop new and more complex personal values. However, when pressured to become a “worthy candidate” for a highly selective school, this is hardly possible. While Princeton Day School does a fairly decent job of allowing students to explore their interests, I myself have come to the same fork in the road far too many times: Will this be worth it for college? How many “points” will it score me as an applicant? College admissions have too much of a say in the way we become adults. We are given little freedom to truly express ourselves because the fear of not correctly guessing the formula for admittance into our dream schools outweighs any desire to become the people we actually hope to be later in life.

So what is the true extent of the consequences when one chooses to focus on college applications rather than one’s passions? What is the cost of becoming “the perfect applicant”? An identity.

Firstly, our will to learn suffers in the name of a good grade, which is the baseline to any application for a highly selective college. According to The Atlantic, “research shows that chasing after perfect grades discourages creativity and reduces academic risk-taking.” One of the major skills that a student must master in a classroom setting is not only how to learn, but how to learn well. While high school and even college are all temporary and only a fraction of our lives, this skill will follow us beyond campus if absorbed well. Taking shortcuts and cramming the night before a test will become a weakness in the long run.

Secondly, our individual activities are chosen not on our own terms, but on the terms of theoretical college admissions teams. In other words, students do not pursue their own interests but instead let colleges dictate what their passions should be. Too much motivation comes from the (unfortunately) common phrase “I’m only doing this for college.”

Thirdly, our self-esteem fluctuates frequently with the rise and fall of our grades, the number of Honors classes we take, how good of an applicant we think we may be, and, in the end, what schools we are admitted to or rejected from. We have deluded ourselves into believing that the definitive answer to the question “Am I smart?” rests on the answers to the above questions. Riding this “self-worth rollercoaster” will not do us any favors.

We have sacrificed far too much in the name of this flawed system. Admission offices in the top schools across the nation define the people we strive to become in four years which should encompass a time of enormous character and intellectual development. What is more devastating is that when all is said and done, there is no guarantee that our sacrifices will be enough. Despite the way that we students stretch ourselves towards superhuman expectations, the vast majority will not gain admission to our dream schools.

The world of education is constantly changing, and therefore the college admissions process moves with it. For example, the way we view grades has changed drastically in the last 100 years, inducing an ever-increasing amount of anxiety among students, connecting closely with the problem of college admissions. We may be aware of this growing problem, but the question at hand should be “How can we improve the college admissions process?” The solution will certainly not be easy to build. In fact, there is a very high chance that I will not see it by the end of my high school career. However, nothing would make me happier than to see that one day, no student will have to choose between their well-being and conforming to a system that demands a kind of perfection that is not true to their identity.

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