My Problem with the College Application Process
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
Thinking about these upcoming months, I feel an overwhelming sense of dread. This is the year where all of my life will be streamlined into a couple thousand words, a list of 10 activities, and some numbers.
As someone who’s used to looking at my own life from only my perspective, I am forced to consider what a random stranger who didn’t know me personally, didn’t know me like I know myself, would glean as my most noteworthy achievements, or how “successful” I’ve been in achieving anything at all.
I’m talking, of course, about the college application process, specifically in the US. Unlike other countries around the world, such as China, Japan, and South Korea, which have nationwide college entrance exams that all students take to determine their placements in higher education, the US emphasizes a “holistic” review of college applicants, which means our decision isn’t just based off of a singular standardized test, but rather a myriad of factors that are used by admissions officers to essentially summarize our entire lives up until now and make a decision about whether we “fit” into their college.
While there are definite pros to the holistic approach of college admissions, as well as increasing equity for students from marginalized communities and low-income backgrounds, I have been considering the potential effects such an approach can have upon students’ self-image.
As we write our college applications, we are often encouraged to try to show a “multi-dimensional” personality, and use devices such as our common application personal statement to share the “sides of us” that can’t be found reading through a list of activities or accomplishments. But this begs the question of whether a 17 year old knows themselves well enough to fit their identity, the essence of who they are, into an essay in a way that not only appeals to a stranger, but also sells them as someone who would fit into that specific college environment.
It’s not an easy thing to do, to say the least. If I asked other kids my age if they know who they are, I’m sure that the majority of them would say they don’t, or at least that they’re not 100% sure yet. Furthermore, having a fully developed character and personality is becoming the next most important thing in order to get into top schools - admissions officers are increasingly looking for people who know who they are, know what they want to do. Because if you have yourself entirely figured out, then it’s more likely for admissions to be able to figure you out through your application, and have a clear vision for how you could fit into their college community.
But there are a couple of issues I have with this method: firstly, I believe that it can give the impression that college decisions reflect how successful a student’s entire life has been. With this “holistic” approach, colleges claim to evaluate applicants’ entire lives from as unbiased, equitable, and objective a perspective as possible. And while I acknowledge the current ongoing efforts to continue to make the process more accurate, I believe that in the end, there is only so much we can communicate about ourselves in such limited space. In a couple thousand words, a list of activities and awards, and some numbers like SAT/ACT scores, AP scores, etc., we are expected to give a very full scope of our entire life. But many students still don’t know how to write about their lives from an objective view, because we’ve all been experiencing our lives from our own perspective. It’s difficult for us to see past the things that might have been important to the US, to see what would be considered objectively important to a college admissions officer.
In fact, as college admissions have become increasingly competitive, we often get the feeling that we need to fake who we are in order to succeed. We still want to show that “multidimensional” personality, but at the same time we want them to admit us, so we can’t show the bad parts of us. So in conclusion, we need to craft a very real, almost living personality using our application, but at the same time it can’t be real to the degree where it actually reflects every part of us, and it should still hide the parts that we can’t show.
Personally, I have found that evaluating myself from this perspective makes me feel like I have so many things that I can’t show colleges, and things I should be ashamed of. I’ve started to feel like some of the things I do are a “waste of time”, because they don’t show intellectual vitality or curiosity even if they are personally significant or meaningful to me. So when we add and subtract, strategically taking away some parts of us and pushing forward others, do we end up with a person who is still ourselves? Or is it someone that doesn’t truly represent our identity?
But either way, this person ends up being the one who is measured by colleges, and decided upon as to whether we can get in or not. And if we are turned away, it feels like our personality, all the things that make us us, are not good enough. That we as a whole person, have failed to make something meaningful out of our life.
Furthermore, we must take into account the uncontrollable factors surrounding how we each mature and discover who we truly are. Depending on both our environment, or the “nurture” factors, and our innate qualities, the “nature” factors, we each end up having our own timeline of growing into the people that we want to be. Different hitches along the path, events that change the trajectories of our lives, can change that timeline to become shorter or longer. Sometimes, we take detours to explore other options, before coming back to the main path.
However, I strongly believe that it is almost impossible to set a specific age by which a population of people should all be expected to have fully matured and become the best versions of themselves. Sometimes, it takes our whole lives to discover who we truly are.
Either way, what I’m saying is although 17 is too early, it’s not like pushing the age at which we apply to college back a couple of years will magically fix this problem.
All in all, the only solution I can really think of as of right now is to do some introspection, and decide where you want to end up. Nowadays, we end up applying to schools simply because of their prestige, or our parents tell us to, or other various environmental factors when in actuality it’s not somewhere that we want to end up. And unfortunately, we often don’t even realize somewhere isn’t a place where we want to be until we’re already there, and have spent a good amount of time there.
So while we can’t try to cheat the code and take a shortcut to finding out who we will become in the future, we can take a guess at where we want to end up. Instead of just applying to colleges that are objectively “good”, I would suggest doing in-depth research to find colleges with tons of programs that suit your current interests, and have a student culture that fits your favored type of vibe.
A simple way to evaluate that is thinking about all the friends you’ve made over your life, and then considering what friendships you’ve enjoyed most, what friendships have help you grow the most, what friendships were extremely unhealthy for you, and then based off of that look at the current student population at each college you’re potentially applying to. If their student culture is generally organized into the types of friendships you’d want, then you should apply. But if it’s encouraging friendships that you would want to leave, then don’t apply.
In fact, I believe that a student’s relationship with college should be viewed much like a friendship. One shouldn’t be above the other, and it’s simply unrealistic for one to know every single thing about the other. But it starts with us initiating the relationship, extending an offer of friendship to a place that we actually like and would WANT to be at. That is the only reason why colleges can evaluate us, and then decide whether or not they want to enter into a relationship with us. Therefore, don’t just let the power that you have in deciding WHO you want to be friends with slip out of your grasp. Choose wisely when you consider which colleges to apply to. And much like we don’t expect everyone who we want to be friends with to instantly like us and want to be friends with us too, college rejections are simply a matter of not fitting the personality that they’re looking for, rather than actually reflecting anything about our whole personality.
I ask you all to take this advice with a grain of salt, because I am not a college admissions officer or professional college advisor, all of this comes simply from my own experiences as a prospective applicant this year, and of course some YouTube videos on college admissions processes.
But in these next few months, as I disappear into the never ending darkness of the college application process tunnel, I wanted to write this for myself, and for all of you, as a reminder that we are not defined by this phase of life. After these months, there will be so much more to come. And as always, I write this