For many high school seniors, college admissions seem to float over them like a omniscient cloud. The application process is long, complex, and disjointed. With most deadlines past, many seniors are counting down the days until decisions or are working feverently on other applications. Some are doing both. Pulling through the storm of emails is an accomplishment within itself, and any applicant deserves a round of applause.
Essentially, the application timeline looks like this: it opens around August. Seniors are encouraged to choose their schools, gather up the necessary paperwork and schedule any tests they want to take. Around September is when teachers begin writing letters of recommendation. Application components such as essays, transcripts, and resumes are written up and filed. Then, October is crunch time for many early applicants. The FAFSA, or Free Application for Student Aid, opened in October this year, unlike past seasons where it has not been available until January. Some schools will encourage alumni interviews. Art majors have to put together a diversified portfolio, musicians have to create and select their best performance recordings.
Then many early deadlines arrive in November, and after that, seniors are still loaded with work for the regular decision round. The process of choose-write-apply-wait continues until January for most colleges. Unfortunately, that means that the anxiety of college response tides over into the new year. Final admissions notifications usually fall around April or May, and then the following summer is a barrage of getting ready to move into your future.
That sounds like a lot, right? A whole nine months of college madness.
But this is the worst of it: most students barely know why they are doing this. In Excellent Sheep, an extended commentary on the “miseducation of the American elite”, a former Yale student was quoted as saying, “Most of us do not know how [to find our passion] and that is precisely how we arrived at Yale, by having a passion only for success.”
The years of secondary school that follow high school are being consumed by this “passion only for success.” Students are becoming more competitive than ever. Purchasing study guides and private tutors, working for months towards perfection on the SAT and ACT… there is nothing wrong with wanting to do well, but there is something wrong when you are consumed by this passion for success.
I have heard adults tell me, seriously, to keep any scholarship opportunities a secret from my friends so I would have less competition in the long run. This advice brought something deeply disturbing to my attention. The road to success was somehow selfish, lonely. It was never intended to be like this. The amount of strategy involved with attacking essays and building resumes is something straight out of The Art of War. With all of this competition, you’d think that American students would then be outperforming other global nations--but that is not the case either. Asian countries driven by study curfews and outrageous ambition often top international rankings, showing that competition is one way to the top, but there are better methods. It has been said over and over again, but the key to great education are teachers, as proven by Finnish models. Throwing students into a pressure cooker of competitive academics or dangling the Ivy prize over their heads is not the way to raise smart kids, and it is certainly not the way to raise happy adults.
Returning to the idea of a passion for success, the statement “I am only doing it because it looks good on my resume” is frighteningly common. It shows that modern education has inflated to a point where students are pursuing things that do not inspire them. Whether this strategy of padding your resume truly works or not is up for debate, but let it be said that admissions officers are always looking for depth over breadth. If you are wholly dedicated to art, then you should show that, instead of feeling obliged to join every single honor society there is. The former dean of Harvard college once commented that “Too many students...wake up in a crisis, not knowing why they have worked so hard.” For prospective students, do not submit yourself to that crisis.
Over the past few decades, American children have started dreaming of name-brand schools and top-grossing incomes instead of happiness. If you have a Harvard sweatshirt hanging in your closet, does that really make you better than the next person? Of course not. The prestige of a school has no direct impact on your success in life. The true joy of attending college has been convoluted with a “tedious, soulless preoccupation with status,” and some students are perceiving that status as a golden ticket in life. More often than not, that “golden ticket” comes with a boatload of debt and cutthroat competition. If you can find it in yourself to conquer the pressure cooker, then go right ahead, but it is certainly not the golden ticket some are looking for.
if you really want to succeed, this is what you need to know: regardless of where you go or what you do, do it honestly and with dedication. I wish I realized this earlier, but the college admissions process is not meant to be a stressful time. Instead, it is a time to look at what you have accomplished and decide where you want to go. As for Collegeboard, Common Application Inc., and colleges around the nation, it may be time to change things. It is time to get out of a culture of success and into one of positive learning and passion.
As Frank Bruni declared in his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be...
“To all the high school kids in this country who are dreading the crossroads of college admissions… We owe you and the whole country a better, more constructive way.”
Ling is an editor for The Millennial Times.