The College Admissions Trap

I was a slave to the college applications process. I took the SAT (twice), two SAT subject tests, and eight AP exams. I spent months writing various college application essays so I could pick the best one. I bought easily 20 test and college prep books. All in all, I would say I spent:

  • SAT fee: $40 x 2 = $80, plus

  • SAT subject test fees: $10 x 2 = $20, plus

  • AP exam fees: $90 x 8 = $720 (I can barely believe this one), plus

  • Cost of sending AP scores to my college = $15, plus

  • Application fees: $60 x 8 = $480, plus

  • Cost of college and test preparation books: 20 x $20 = $400, for a total of

…$1,715 on pre-college materials alone. And that is nothing next to the enormous amounts of time, stress, and sleeplessness that I dedicated to the process. But as much as the college admissions game cost me, a part of me loved it. I liked the rush of competition, and the feeling that I was breaking into a complex system to get what I wanted: a generous scholarship at a competitive school that would look good on my resumé. I wasn’t valedictorian, but I took challenging classes, had a good GPA, and tested well. I was a strong applicant. For a kid who had a lot of self esteem issues in other areas, college applications were an ego boost.

For all the “boost” that it gave me, though, it also caused me a lot of grief. I spent anywhere from 6-12 hours a day doing homework. I started working as soon as I got home and stayed up until, sometimes, three in the morning, only to wake up again at 6:45 to get ready for school. I got sick constantly. I cried about being good enough for colleges, scholarships, and suitable financial aid. I developed an eating disorder. I was seventeen years old.

And now my little brother, Broseph, is starting the college admissions process himself.

Broseph is not like me. He doesn’t want to beat the system, or even play the college admissions game; he just wants a good education and the chance to study what he loves. He is smart and very, very passionate; he loves to learn on his own time, and he has an unbelievable memory for the things he finds interesting (evolutionary biology and paleontology). He can rattle off facts like nobody’s business; when we watch films or documentaries, he likes to point out factual errors or inconsistencies. He spends hours a day on forums and learning more about his favorite subjects online. He likes to go fossil hunting with our dad, and in the summers, he regularly volunteers at a local museum, cleaning fossils and giving presentations to incoming groups of kids. He recently gave a lesson on fossil finding at our local middle school.

 A passionate kid like him should be the perfect college candidate. But he doesn’t like standardized testing, and the thought of competing for grades or a spot on the ‘admit’ list stresses him out. The “game” of college admissions – with its endless tests, essays, and interviews – scares him. (And with the example I set, I can’t blame him for not wanting to opt in.) He doesn’t care about being the best. He just wants to learn.

 And the world of competitive college admissions isn’t made for students like that.

I don’t care about prestige for Broseph. He doesn’t need to go to a college like Harvard or Carnegie Mellon to get a “good” education, and whether he does or not will have no effect on how proud I am of him, how much I love and respect him, or his ultimate success in life. But the unfortunate thing is that these schools – the ones with big brand names – are some of the only ones that can afford to give the financial aid our family (and many others like ours) needs. The fact of the matter is that almost no one in America can pay sticker price for a college education. Which means that the rest of us are left competing for scholarships and a space on the ‘admit’ list of the few colleges that can afford to meet 100% of demonstrated need.

What does it take to get into these colleges? Kids are told they need to take the hardest classes, and get the highest grades, possible. There is space on the Common Application* for up to eight eight extracurricular activities, and students are told to emphasize any and all leadership positions. To even apply to an American college, one needs to take the ACT or the SAT and, usually, at least two SAT subject tests or AP exams. For the “best” colleges – the ones that can afford to meet all demonstrated financial need – an SAT score of at least 2100 out of 2400 is recommended. A 700 out of 800 on all SAT Subject Tests. A 4 or 5 out of 5 on all AP exams.

What this means is that our society is not encouraging creative, critical thinking. Instead, we are teaching students to test the best, to cram and regurgitate information; to perform.

We have created a culture in which children are taught to compete for the ability to afford an education. And this enormous pressure to succeed in one specific way, as if there is only one kind of intelligence and oneway to measure it, means that we are telling students who are motivated and intelligent, but have trouble testing or sitting at a desk for hours, that they are not good enough. Worse yet, with endless testing and hours of daily homework, we are discouraging creative discovery and the natural desire to learn.

My brother’s grades and test scores, while very good, are not quite what mine were. But unlike me when I was seventeen, he is mostly happy. He still likes to learn and discover, and he does so in his spare time. I admire that; it is what I want for my children, and in hindsight, what I would have wanted for myself. My parents, whose only experience with American college applications was my example, want him to work harder and do more. But all I want for him is to be happy and healthy. I was miserable for much of high school; if I could spare him that, and leave his sense of humor and desire to learn intact, I would want nothing more.

In the last several months, as Broseph’s senior year nears and the pressure to get into a “good” college intensifies, I have seen my brother go from vibrant and happy-go-lucky to anxious and concerned. His emails to me, which used to be about things like a news segment or the new Hobbit movie, are usually questions about testing, college visits, and whether or not he should do something that might “look good” on his applications or resumé.

All I hope is that, in this quest for a quality education, his actual love of learning survives.
* The general application that students submit, along with college-specific supplements, when applying to college.
Sara Laughed

Hey hey! I'm Sara, an American writer living in the Netherlands and working as a product manager.

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