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The Arms Race of College Admissions

Daniel Larson, '18, Staff Writer

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“Where will you be going to college?” When your aunt Carol asks this simple question, you internally cringe because of the major decisions ahead. Every senior I know agrees that with applications comes a sense of competition and stress. You may want to attend Prestigious College because of the respect you’ll command from peers, so to gain a competitive advantage, you take AP classes to raise your weighted GPA, join extracurriculars you couldn’t care less about, and pull all-nighters before a test in a class you don’t want to take. Of course, this gives you an edge on all the other students who don’t act this way, but in reality, students across the nation work to give themselves a “spike” and seem “more desirable.”

The catch-22 lies in the harsh truth that many students spread themselves too thin by taking on crushing amounts of work to meet arbitrary standards. Naturally, stress would be greatly reduced if students stopped competing to this unnatural extent. Maybe it’s naive to focus more on your mental health, participate in only extracurriculars you are passionate about, and fortify a sleep schedule if it means losing that edge you need to impress High-Ranking University.

My friends, too, are exhausted and overexerted, and if I could convince them to subscribe to this theory, none would be at a disadvantage and we would all gain from it. But, you can’t stop because colleges don’t like to see an “easy” senior course load. The dilemma stems from the simple truth that everyone with “street smarts” would deviate from the plan and take those AP courses to give them an advantage; why not be the lone student who goes above and beyond everyone else in course load. The only guarantee for you is to continue to push yourself to the extremes and hope that others begin to ease off the throttle, inevitably resulting in your personal ruin. Students wishing to attend Leading College find themselves facing the hardest classes, most clubs, fewest hours of sleep, and a potential trainwreck of mental health.

This behavior is both rewarding and futile. First, you see your friends from the last few graduating classes. The boy that is attending Stanford took 12 APs. The girl that is attending U Chicago was president of 4 altruistic clubs. The boy that is attending Vanderbilt scored a 1590 on his SAT. You’ve heard this story before, and I guarantee you’ll hear it again. Your aunt Carol might believe you can study at any place of your choice with your 34 ACT, but you feel your stomach tighten when you think back to your glaring lack of extracurricular dedication, as told to you by the r/ApplyingToCollege or College Confidential community. Those legendary figures who received acceptance letters from Middlebury and Emory all worked hard—and it paid off.

The catch comes when you know that most people who are applying to the same university as you worked just as hard as you, took similar courses as you, and participated in the same clubs as you. No matter how hard you push yourself, they’re pushing themselves just as hard. Nobody gains a palpable, quantifiable advantage. Where everyone is competing to gain an advantage, no one does. As an analogy, in war, an attempt may be made to improve the weapons used, but in the end you’re still fighting a similarly equipped opponent. Yet this time, there are greater casualties.

Even top tier schools readily note that a perfect SAT is not a guarantee of acceptance. The idea of holistic admissions puts pressure on becoming a renaissance man of an applicant. They say Don’t stress too much about your GPA! You have good standardized test scores and are involved in sports! Holistic admissions takes stress away. But many applicants hear Make sure you join marching band and have an essay that sets you apart and volunteer for 100 hours a year and work in a part time job!

When admissions officers simplify applicants to numbers and a few writing samples, the importance of metrics only increases—even in a holistic process. Ironically, the “A” in SAT stands for “aptitude,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “a natural ability.” But we all know that you can increase standardized test scores by studying or hiring a tutor. Students attempt in one way or another to manipulate the system and earn a higher score on this test, only because the SAT is a number that admissions officers find important. Anyone who has heard a university representative present has heard that they value intellect. But simply put, your capacity for critical thinking, creativity, and so on are condensed into a standardized test number, GPA, and class rank. If you take part in the previously mentioned methods to raise your standardized test scores, are you a better student? Smarter? More likely to contribute to society? More likely to be successful?

The dilemma strikes again when you devote your time. In a binary way, you could either study for the ACT and seem more intelligent to admissions of Honorable University, or you could actually read, learn, think critically, and essentially become more intelligent. Which translates to a better ACT score and an overall better student profile? You could attempt to learn all the course material for a good grade in BC Calculus, or you could hope your buddy from first block tells you what’s on the test so that you can study during lunch. Academic integrity faces strains when students are faced with the strains of the importance of numbers such as GPA. A grade, under this scenario, sometimes represents the street smarts of a student rather than the intelligence and work ethic. This GPA measurement is virtually meaningless to the moral student who went fifth block over the course of the prior week to study, but it holds value to the college nonetheless. In this sense, GPA and standardized test scores are just manipulatable metrics.

I understand that it is practically impossible under time and resource constraints for a university to truly understand the entirety of a student, and quantitative values like class rank, GPA, standardized test scores, and service hours contribute to a clearer picture. I can’t offer a solution to this catch-22 either. I just know that with metrics, personality—and in a sense, the truth—is lost. Your friends might not want to force you into this dilemma, but the competitive atmosphere behind college admissions fuels the cyclical nature of overwhelming pressure. Although everyone speaks about the malice of the application process, few actually change their behavior, but instead continue to seek out advantages. Underclassmen, don’t be afraid to take a break. The process is stressful, and in the end, there’s no clear winner. Whether you play into the system or not, I wish you seniors the best of luck in your applications.

The student newspaper of Strath Haven High School. The Panther Press is first and foremost a reflection of the opinions and interests of the student body. For this reason, we do not publish any anonymous or teacher-written submissions, and we do not discriminate against any ideology or political opinion. While we are bound by school policy (and funding), we will not render any article neutral, although individual points may be edited for obscene or inflammatory content. Finally, the articles published in the Panther Press do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or advisors.
The Arms Race of College Admissions