If I May: The Toxicity of the ‘College Process’

My sister is a junior in high school, which means that this spring, she has begun the “College Process.” She’s been visiting many schools around the country and beginning to think about which ones she wants to apply to next fall. This process should be one of excitement, and to a degree, it is. Seeing a variety of college campuses is very fun, and fantasizing about where one will have their mind molded for four years is exhilarating. However, these days it seems that the College Process is a far more stressful experience than it is a positive one.

The culture of competition that plagues academically excellent students across the country is perhaps the biggest culprit in making the College Process so fraught. Of course, the whole thing is inherently competitive; there are only a certain number of slots at the “top” schools, so students must compete against each other for these slots. What is troublesome, however, is that a great deal of high school students seem to all have the same definition of what a “top” school is. Many define a “top” school as the school at the top of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. These schools are, of course, incredibly difficult to get into, as many at the top (Princeton, The University of Chicago and Harvard) have relatively smaller student bodies (around 6,000 undergraduates) and receive thousands upon thousands of applications. Inevitably, very few of the hopeful applicants will actually be accepted into these schools.

However, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the like are not actually the “top” schools in the United States for college-bound high schoolers. Sure, they are at the top of the rankings, and sure, the name of the school may be eye-catching on a certain type of job application. But these two facts do not mean that these schools are the best schools. The “top” school in the United States for a high school senior is the school that fits that specific student the best. Maybe it is Harvard after all, but maybe it’s Kenyon College in Ohio, or the University of Indiana or Berklee College of Music.

Students today seem more focused on the name of the school they are applying to than the actual school to which they are applying. My hope is that the culture of the College Process will change from one that is about being able to say you’re going to a great college and instead become one where everyone is going to a college that they are excited about attending. I do not mean to suggest that those of us (myself included) who applied to a school at the top of the rankings (one of them being Amherst, of course) did not believe that they were applying to a school that suited them. But I hope that students will not put pressure on themselves to apply to a school just because it is “the best school they can get in to.” Rather, I hope that students will apply to “the best school they want to get in to.”