I know I’ve made the process of choosing a college sound extraordinarily difficult, but to be fair, I’m a bit biased—that’s the point of the process where I’m at right now, so I don’t have much to compare it to. But from what I’ve heard—from upperclassmen friends and admissions officers alike—the worst is surely yet to come. The applications will be due, the essays will need to be written, and we will soon need to confront the reality of damn, they don’t just let anyone in here, do they?
Colleges love to tout their selectivity—a low selectivity percentage is like a prized trophy made from the tears of high school seniors. And of course they have every right to do that—who doesn’t want the best of the best at their institution? It’s certainly not done out of malice on their part—but it creates a world of pressure for applicants. After all, let’s remember that the highly selective colleges admit a lower percentage of applicants than the United States Congress and lunch counters in 1960s Birmingham.
So of course, every student who wants to be admitted to a highly selective (or even somewhat selective) institution is trembling at the prospect of being judged by a group of strangers, compared to a group of students with SAT scores twice yours, and evaluated for your ability to contribute to an institution of advanced scholarship and research while you’re still in the process of learning how to do your own laundry.
So we think: how do we set ourselves apart from the pack? And soon, three clear ways to make you sexy to colleges appear, each more daunting than the last:
Have a Parent Give a Million Dollars to the School: Self-explanatory. Nine hundred grand will do if you’re in a pinch.
Have an Oprah Interview for a Life Story: A friend of mine recently complained that she had nothing to write her essay about, having been an upper-middle-class white girl with a relatively easy life—and it’s true; those with hassle-free lives will (ironically enough) have much more trouble writing their college essays than someone who immigrated from war-torn Sudan or lost an ear or had a father who died in a wheat thresher. As life struggles go, my most insurmountable ones involve my parents buying the wrong brand of orange juice.
DO ALL THE THINGS EVER: This is the heart of the issue, and the real effect of these crazy admissions rates. There’s the idea that one needs to be superlative, transcendental, an elite mega-student to get into college. And of course colleges say they’re looking for people who are eager to learn and who are leaders, but without the ability to stare deeply into your soul, how can they possibly know? Desperate to climb to the top of the applicant pool, high achievers today are attempting to rise to even greater heights, which any guy named Icarus can tell you is a pretty foolish idea. The mantra: “are today’s teens overstimulated?” is repeated by clueless wannabe child psychologists across the Internet’s parenting blogs, but anyone applying to a highly selective university could tell you that it’s not a question—not even close. It’s a cycle of one-upsmanship and attempting to do as many things as possible, engaging in upwards of a dozen extracurriculars, some of which you might not even like, but any of which might draw the coveted eye of a college admissions officer. Who’s taking the hardest classes, who’s getting the best grades, who’s in the most prestigious clubs—all of this is shared pretentiously among the upper rungs of high school juniors and seniors, passed off as friendly and curious banter—and sometimes it is—but often there’s an undertone, just a hint, of paranoia and desperation as we realize that these are, in fact, the people we’ll be competing for that admissions spot with. This brings on a barrage of high expectations; sleep deprivation, and constant engagement in this thing or that thing or the other thing that might just be the tipping point that gets you into The School. That’s not to say none of us are attached to the things we do—we all have some activities that we truly are doing because we want to—but when someone says “Yeah, I’m doing it for the college apps,” even when they accompany it with that “oh-don’t-I-work-so-hard-but-I’m-really-a-chill-guy-colleges-don’t-you-want-my-body” grin and wink, you know they’re only kind of kidding.
Let me be clear that I’m not asking colleges to be less selective. How would scientists that study sleep-deprivation in high school students find work otherwise? But in a world where everything is faster and more demanding because of the prevalence of technology…our lives are moving faster and are more demanding as well, and while the status quo is in place for a reason, people ought to know of its effects. In a world where a B is apocalyptic and a dozen clubs aren’t enough, colleges might at least feel compelled to include stress balls with their over-glossed brochures. Every little bit helps.
Also, if my generation is going to work our butts off like no generation ever before to get into places like Yale, they better not let in any more people like the Bush Twins.