Hello, everyone! Today I’m going to write a bit of a more topical personal post. Even though this is foremost a pop-culture blog, it’s also my blog, and it feels like the right place to talk about what has been worrying me lately: the American college system. I’m not speaking for everyone or trying to generalize; I only want to talk about my experiences and about what I’ve noticed. So if you think the American college system is as flawless as a diamond, you probably won’t enjoy what I have to say. But if you’ve been feeling like there’s something fundamentally fucked up about the college system, welcome! Let’s talk.
I live in the suburbs of D.C, an ethnically diverse metropolis where housing prices are staggering, the public school system is nationally acclaimed, and college becomes a topic of interest on the first day of kindergarten. The “college question” is pertinent at any age. At 20, you get asked about experience in college, at 18, about where you’ve been accepted, at 17 where’ve you applied, and at any age from elementary school and up, about where you want to go. Perhaps adults use this question as an icebreaker, an easy way to size a kid up by their dream school. But to me, it’s always seem as an obsessive way to reinforce the idea that college is the endgame, the first string, the A-team…okay I’m just reciting Taylor Swift lyrics now, but you get my point.
My county houses Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), a magnet school for teenagers interested in STEM. It’s notorious as a pressure cooker and for rampant cheating, but many “high achieving” teens in the area are pressured into applying in eighth grade. There’s many benefits to studying at TJ, including advanced technology and research opportunities most kids don’t get until college. But the number one reason parents push their kids towards TJ is because of its brand name recognition. Once you get accepted to TJ, an acceptance to a prestigious university is a guarantee.
Because of this, TJHSST is synonymous with success. It’s evolved into more of a brand than a high school. It certainly helps prepare students for the branding they’ll seek out when they apply for dozens of almost identical schools, if not more. Expensive, elaborate branding is what I remember most about my college application process. I applied for six schools, and visited most of them. Apart from their locations and the layouts of their campuses, they all seemed remarkably similar. What distinguished them was their branding, and how they each attempted to market themselves as a unique haven with the best teachers, the best technology, the best resources, and the best school spirit. Even all this branding can’t mask the fact that the majority of American colleges are indistinguishable when it comes to the value of education offered. Somehow, they’ve pulled the wool over our eyes and convinced hundreds of thousands of students to enter into a ferocious competition for a coveted acceptance letter that should, in any other universe, be handed over in return for a good GPA and tuition money.
To accomplish this, they needed a multi-step process. First, they reduce applicants into their basest parts, ruining their self-esteem and transforming them into supplicants. They do this through the Common App essay, a prompt so banal (“describe a failure that shaped you”) that writing an essay with any sort of originality is almost impossible. Just be yourself, they say, and you’ll write a college-worthy essay. But these readers aren’t looking for you. They want something easy to break apart and categorize. They are filling quotas, after all, even if they pretend to be “holistic.”
I remember the advice my 12th grade English teacher gave the class when we were shopping around our essays: be original, but not too original, be serious, but no tragedy (because everyone has a dead father and your’s doesn’t matter), be authentic, but not too authentic. It’s confusing, until you read some of the “perfect” college essays that helped secure admission to Harvard or Yale. They display the kind of unauthentic “authentic-ness” that also works so well on social media. The kind of worldview that broadcasts happiness, optimism, and success with a veneer of character-building hardship. The Common App asks you to write about your failures, your successes, but they’re not looking for you in the essay. They don’t want you. They want who you’re pretending to be.
But that’s just one essay. There’s also the soul-sucking short-answers from each individual university begging you to tell them why you want to go to their school and only their school, as if they’re completely oblivious that you’re simultaneously applying to at least five other schools.Answering these prompts is like applying for a job, but worse, because jobs aren’t comparing your fake words of love to those of 35,000 other applicants. I get the fact that colleges need some method of choosing applicants, but these apathetic essays are not the way to go. Like the SATs, they reduce all students to clones. How they distinguish between them is anyone’s guess. Pick them out of a hat, maybe?
Unfortunately, the worst part of the process isn’t the application, but the day when the acceptances are sent out. There’s no feeling quite like opening up a webpage and seeing the words “regretfully, we cannot…” I’m one of the lucky ones. I applied to 6 colleges and got rejected from two, accepted to three, and waitlisted for one. I don’t know why I got accepted to some and rejected from others, but those rejections still needled at me. Unlike a job application designed to judge one’s qualifications, the college application was judging me.
My brother applied to 3 colleges this year, a conservative amount, but with a 3.7 GPA, above average test scores, years as a dedicated athlete, and almost 150 hours of community service under his belt, it was expected he would get at least one acceptance letter. Imagine our surprise when he was unceremoniously rejected from all 3. Naturally, he was devastated. But I was more than devastated. I was angry. It seemed to me that my brother had played by the rules his entire life and still lost the game. As early as elementary school, the system had told him that in order to be accepted into college, he needed a high GPA, high test scores, dedicated time in extra-curriculars, and demonstrated leadership. My brother believed in the system and tried his best to adhere to it, yet after all of his hard work, he was denied the one thing the system promised.
We live in a globalized and incredibly competitive world, so naturally it will be increasingly difficult for students to get accepted into colleges, but that’s not the problem with the American university system. The main issue is that college has become a seller’s market and students are left in the dust. Boosted by their almost mythical branding (looking at you, Ivy League), colleges court astronomical numbers of applicants and then ruthlessly cut the majority in order to flaunt their scandalous acceptance rates. Of course it’s unrealistic that Harvard should accept all 40,000 of its applicants, but is it reasonable for them to reject 95 percent of them to protect their prestige? The cloud of elite hysteria around these schools has reached a breaking point. When you pull away the branding and the name dropping and the connections, the Ivy Leagues are no different than other liberal arts institutions. State universities offer the same quality of research opportunities, teach the same classes, and save students the enormous amount of debt they might get from the Ivies and other prestigious elite colleges. But despite this, state schools would sell their soul for an Ivy reputation. And more and more, these state schools are pulling the same crap. My brother wasn’t rejected from three Ivy League univerisities, or even three Top Ten schools, but three state schools. Since prestige has become a college’s most valuable currency, even state schools have started playing the rejection game.
Pursuing a college education based only on reputation is the reason the American system is failing. Parents push students relentlessly towards greatness in order to serve them up on a platter to elite colleges that are already overflowing with identical students. And the more parents that do this, the more students that get rejected, the greater the prestige, and the greater the mania grows. If we could only step away from this cycle, we could attempt to fix this system. Higher education should be demanding of its students, but it should not be exclusive to the point where those who seek it are denied. All students who are interested in higher education and demonstrate academic proficiency should be accepted into universities, full stop.
I haven’t mentioned the astronomical cost of education, which of course is one of the most common reasons that students are excluded from higher education, but I think that even cost comes second to the fact that the system is already inherently flawed. Think about it like this: the only guaranteed venue for higher education in the United States is community college. Community colleges are fantastic for earning a two-year-degree, but they don’t offer a four-year-degree, which is a pre-requisite for most well-paying jobs. Essentially, the chance of you getting a degree which allows you to secure a high paying job is at the whim of an system which values rejection more than admittance, and reputation more than education. And that, my friends, is why our system is fucked.
This was a long post/rant, for which I apologize. But I am seriously worried about the state of the American higher education system. The application process emphasizes insincerity and promotes an “ideal candidate” that is completely unrealistic. College is supposed to be the beginning of a person’s adulthood, not the peak of their career. And yet, colleges still want applicants who are exemplary in impossible ways. Sure, you can start a non-profit at sixteen, or write a best-selling book, or develop a life-saving app, but you shouldn’t have to do any of those things as a teenager to be considered worthy of a college education. Those teenagers should be the exception, not the rule. Nevertheless, colleges are obsessed with the idea that students should be “well-rounded” in the most exhausting way. These obsessions push students to try to have the best grades, the best test scores, the most club attendances, and the most accumulated volunteer hours in order to earn a college’s approval. So in the end, the colleges get what they want, a corps of “well-rounded” students, while the accepted students finally get a chance to relax and shake off the veneer of superficiality that’s haunted them their entire scholastic career. At least, until the new semester starts.
For all the Gen X’ers wondering why the hell millennials and the teen folk are all anxious and depressed these days…it’s because of this. We spent our adolescence aiming for perfection, only to be rejected by a system that uses our desperation to enhance its own power. And if we do get accepted, it’s only to be sucked back into the system with a mandate to be even better, reach higher, go farther, this time just to get a job. So in summation, the system is broken, and maybe we’d all be better without it. If only we could we ditch it. Or as Twitter says: