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The Collision of COVID and College Culture

I started the college process full of excitement. I threw myself into research, in awe of all of the options: small liberal arts schools, huge universities, east coast, midwest, international. It is nice having something to look forward to and I am grateful to the college counselors at Northwest. But the process quickly became a bit all-consuming. I started comparing the science programs of equally incredible colleges, hunting for tiny differences that might make or break a future career. I searched the web to try to get a sense of the social scene at various schools, most likely buying into stereotypes along the way. Like last year’s juniors, the class of 2022 is relying on the internet to get a sense of the possibilities for the next four years. We have been stuck in COVID-world for more than a year with no plans for the future except endless uncertainty, so when it comes to college, it’s easy to get sucked into the internet blackhole. I feel like if I don’t find the perfect school I will be languishing in this COVID half-life forever. 

Students need to rethink how we approach the college process and the relative worth of different institutions. I appreciate that Northwest reminds us that there are much more important things to worry about than standardized tests and activities lists – like social justice, adventure, or friendships. The college counselors do a good job encouraging us to reflect on the big picture: at the beginning of the process we filled out a questionnaire about our individual needs, our dreams, and what we truly want to get out of college. This is a wise way of thinking about higher-education. But it’s difficult to internalize these messages given the pressure from the broader society.

Northwest students have been shown graphs that show how most schools have relatively high acceptance rates, but many students, including myself, are drawn to the glamor of incredibly selective schools. “What makes me the most upset about the college admissions process,” says one junior, “is that just because of a small number I think, ‘oh, super selective schools are obviously superior.’ It’s twisted. I know going to one of these schools doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to get a better education or have a better life but… I don’t really know that.” 

“There’s this pressure to get into incredibly difficult institutions just for the sake of saying you got into xyz,” says another student. That outlook is detrimental to students’ mental health and leads to burnout, especially when we’ve been online all year. Recently, when I asked my friend about college she responded, “I feel so much pressure to go to certain schools. It’s not pressure from my family – they don’t really care where I go – they just care about the work I put in and the way I make the experience mine. I’m putting the pressure on myself. I will be escaping to the mountains with some sheep.”

Everyone’s lives have been disrupted during COVID but some students are struggling more than others. “It feels like it’s going to be nearly impossible for colleges to get a real feel for a student’s abilities/talents/etc. because so much is warped by our situations,” says a junior. “Online learning can be incredibly difficult for some people which results in twisted grades that aren’t necessarily reflective of a person’s abilities. Jobs, athletics, other extracurriculars are also affected by the pandemic, and since colleges care so much about these activities it fuels extra stress when you don’t achieve this.” 

A potentially positive effect of COVID is that many colleges also ditched SATs and ACTs for this past year and the near future. But this, along with the large number of students who deferred enrollment last fall, led to extraordinarily low acceptance rates at some “top” colleges while acceptance rates at lesser known schools have gone up as their application numbers have dropped. Schools like Haverford, UCLA, and Penn State saw double-digit increases in applicants and Harvard’s applicant pool increased by 42%, resulting in a regular decision acceptance rate of 3.4%. And, unfortunately, a surge in applications doesn’t necessarily mean more people are applying to college: according to the New York Times, the Common App received 10% more applications from 1% more applicants in 2021, which means that the number of students who applied to college only increased a small amount but these students applied to more institutions using the Common App, leading to lower acceptance rates. “There was also a 2 percent drop in students who qualified for waived admissions fees — a proxy for family income.” Schools which educate the majority of students have suffered more than $120 billion in losses during the pandemic and some have closed for good. Though many selective schools have significantly improved their financial aid over time, the fact that a tiny number of schools receive exorbitant amounts of money and attention at the expense of other institutions does not bode well for equity in education. Last fall, enrollment in community colleges dropped more than 20 percent.

COVID has exacerbated and brought attention to flaws which were already present in the college system before the pandemic. According to “Getting In,” an essay by Malcolm Gladwell about the college admissions process, the United States system is particularly unique. In Canada, for example, students rank universities in their province based on their preferences and then send the list to a central admissions office along with their grades. Unlike the United States, there often isn’t a specific hierarchy of schools and tuition is the same for most colleges. Instead of focusing on perfection in the years before college, the emphasis is on how seriously you take the experience once you get there – because that is what really matters especially now that graduate school is the equivalent of what undergraduate college used to be. Why don’t US schools work this way? 

Unsurprisingly, the US system is partly the product of exclusion. In 1905, Harvard started basing its admissions decisions on the College Entrance Examination Board test. Gladwell explains, “[b]y 1922, [Jewish people] made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class… They displaced the sons of wealthy WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising.” In response, the presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton began to “elicit information about the ‘character’ of candidates from ‘persons who know the applicants well.’ ” The schools instituted interviews and rating systems, and soon, the “percentage of Jews at Harvard was back down to fifteen percent.” Nowadays, many colleges use a similar “holistic admissions process,” to judge applicants. Ironically, a system which was designed to be discriminatory can help colleges be more inclusive by giving admissions officers context on the opportunities afforded to each applicant. And standardized tests, which once increased access, can be discriminatory: “SATs are so elitist,” says a junior, “If you get a tutor you’re basically guaranteed to do better. You shouldn’t have to prepare for standardized testing.” However, there is no doubt that the pristine resume, grades, and teacher recommendations required by many colleges contribute to a system that still favors privileged applicants who have access to all kinds of opportunities and support. 

The exclusivity woven into US higher-education affects more than who goes to college, it affects the kind of learning prioritized throughout the education system. Some people have started using the word “excellent sheep” to refer to the emphasis among college-bound students on results and resume-building rather than true learning and reflection. The phrase is based on a 2015 book by former Yale professor William Deresiewicz criticising the role of elite colleges in American society and is meant to compare today’s teenagers to compliant sheep getting on a conveyor belt that ends at a high-paying finance or Silicon Valley tech job. As a student applying to college, this is disturbing because sometimes I wonder, is my value measured based on my potential contribution to the market? Excellent sheep don’t stop along the way to think about why they are heading in a certain direction – or maybe they do and decide that it’s the best way to be happy. One junior reflects on “how many things – like volunteering – are done with college in mind. Sometimes I think, ‘what if people think I’m only doing this for college?’ and it ruins the actual passion for me.”

“I’ve gotten a lot more motivation to work hard every single swim practice so I can get faster times and get into certain colleges,” says another student. “But when it comes to school I’m sometimes more concerned with my grade than whether I’m actually learning the material. That’s a big problem, but what am I supposed to do?? I feel like I need good grades to go to certain colleges and therefore have a good future.”

Laurie Santos, a professor of positive psychology at Yale University uses the term “miswanting” to describe this attitude – an “annoying feature of our mind” (or rather, modern US society) that makes us think a “good” job, lots of money, “a hot body,” marriage, etc. will make us happy. According to her research, while people who make around $75K a year are happier than those who make less, people don’t seem to become happier if they make, say, $150K. Of course, there are other factors involved here, like wealth, but the bottom line is goals like these either do not make us as happy as we predict or actively take away from our wellbeing. Instead, she says, we can be happy by using our strengths, being grateful and kind, savoring joyful moments, connecting with friends and acquaintances, focusing on experiences rather than material things, exercising and getting good sleep. Unfortunately, she says, knowing these things does not automatically make us happier – we have to make an effort. For many students, it is almost impossible to push back against our “miswanting” when it comes to college, even if we know (though maybe not deep down) we can still be happy if we go to a less prestigious school. 

I am absolutely in favor of hard work and commitment. But too much focus on achievement makes teenagers unwilling to take risks. I believe resumes are important, but balance is too. It feels as though the college admissions process either motivates kids to pursue activities they are not truly interested in or to overcommit and forgo important freetime. According to a junior, “We’re trying to study for our SATs, make sure we have enough volunteer hours, that we’re doing enough clubs, doing enough sports, doing enough THINGS. The whole process does not feel necessary.” This is troubling. When students relate the activities they do to a college admissions process that does not feel necessary, our genuine interests begin to feel meaningless, too. 

College should be an opportunity to expand our understanding of the world rather than a word that evokes images of rankings, competition, awards, and for many, thousands of dollars of debt. Maybe the US should adopt a system like Canada’s and teach students about positive psychology and how to prioritize our wellbeing. After all, we are teenagers and should be able to make mistakes and learn about ourselves without feeling like every action we take could affect our lives ten years down the road. Though COVID has made the college process harder for juniors and seniors, hopefully the self reflection which many of us have done this year can prompt us to reconsider the system. The values and goals instilled in us by the college admissions process will endure longer than the effects of a certain diploma from a highly selective school – into college itself, into our jobs, into our relationships with people of different educational backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. It is important to remember that higher education can be more than a slip of paper and a route to a high-paying job, and also that graduating from university – or an especially prestigious university – does not make one ‘superior’ in any way. 

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