The battle for admission to the top universities of the U.S. is one that all of us at BC know a little too much about. Senior year of high school was marked by a never-ending checklist, all to show excellence: SAT scores, GPA, letters of recommendation, and crafting the perfect essay all went into the algorithm that would hopefully combine with fate to match us with the best and most prestigious fit. It is difficult to think about pre-college life without remembering the emotionally taxing and stressful process that was finding the right university. While this discussion is one of privilege as well as one that likely will resonate mainly with students of BC or comparable institutions, the college admissions process needs to be addressed.
The selective nature of the admissions process creates a “black and white” dynamic. That is, the nature of admissions suggests to high school seniors that they must work hard to achieve “acceptance” at whatever cost, even if that means crafting an application that is not reflective of their own passions but instead what they think would grant them approval from a committee. This is a very toxic mindset to have and is teaching students, from a relatively young point in their life, to be solely focused on a measurable outcome, rather than on one that is satisfactory to their personal goals and aspirations.
The 2020-21 college admissions cycle was the most competitive and selective in history. The past several years have shown us that this is not an anomaly, but part of a pattern of rising difficulty of gaining acceptance to institutions of higher education. It can only get worse from here: without intervention, the toxic nature of the cycle is going to be more and more debilitating for students.
For students’ mental health, this is a problem. The college years (as we can all attest) can be very stressful and place a lot of pressure on students to succeed and match the qualifications for a specific career path. Furthermore, college can begin (or complete) the cycle of burnout that is becoming ever more common in many professional areas, from medicine to law enforcement. With the college admissions cycle creating stress levels matching or even higher than those experienced while in college and beyond, the possibility of burnout dangerously rises. This is obviously problematic in itself, but from an “efficiency” standpoint, less joyful and motivated people will lead to a less effective workplace somewhere down the line in a career pathway.
As for some potential solutions for creating a better process, I think that the sweet spot lies between challenging students to put effort into their applications and rewarding them for being wholesome, passionate, and honest. One way to accomplish this may be through eliminating, or making optional, the submission of standardized test scores. By placing a disproportionately large amount of weight on a test (the SAT or ACT) that questionably and debatably measures one’s aptitude, the room for students to demonstrate other abilities is limited. Applicants are made to feel as though their creative abilities, indications of their social/emotional intelligence, stories of qualification through demonstration of resilience/other attributes, and expressions of their values are minor facets of their application. Perhaps by making test reporting optional, we can catalyze a more effective process of reflection and discernment that we strive to achieve once in college. Students can begin to be introspective and find out their longings and goals before entering college and represent these in whatever capacity they choose in their application.
I am unsure of the best way to go about changing the admissions process, but I do believe that there are alternatives to the current system. An increased emphasis on social/emotional intelligence and creative forms of learning and communication, along other “non-traditional” categories of assessment that are more essential for one’s success in higher education and in navigating the world of many careers, is just one possibility. By finding a way to allow students more freedom in their college applications, we can make an impact on both their mental and emotional well-being and on the quality of the workforce that we are creating.