“Hi! How are you, it’s been forever!” A hug ensues.
“I’m so great, school is crazy, but I’m hanging in there.”
“I totally understand that.” A pause, the question bubbles in my throat. Suddenly, I can’t resist.
“How are your college apps going?” A wave of anger, sadness, stress, flashes over the eyes.
Then, a smile. “They’re going…great.” Sigh.
I’m no stranger to this conversation. As a high school junior with a ton of senior (and recently graduated) friends, I can’t help but have college on my mind. After all, junior year counts the most, right? The only catch is that those who are actually applying to college are those who want to talk about it the least, in my experience. And still, college applications seem to be the only thing I want to talk about, an eager, wide-eyed junior, chomping at the bit to get a slice of the action. Nerdy, to be sure, but addictive.
The real question is: have I learned anything valuable from asking this question, other than knowing it scares my friends? The answer is kind of. Extensive research and conversations over Starbucks have led me to think I know what I’m doing when it comes to college applications. After all, the countless to-do lists, advice articles, and wisdom imparted on me have to count for something, right? (I’m sure I’ll later find out how much more complicated the process is—there’s no way it’s all as easy as it sounds).
My friends have told me I’m doing the right thing by taking my standardized tests during my first semester. Even so, my mind flutters to the possibility of taking the SAT or ACT early, expecting to do well, and utterly bombing it. And then what if I retake it again, and again, and again, and never get a better score? And then what if I can’t get into college? The stress standardized tests put students through seems so unnecessary, especially considering how little the score ultimately matters. Yes, I won’t deny it’s important to do well on the test, but is a 1600 really worth all the stress? The cost of prep sessions and textbooks? Ridiculous! It feels so impractical to encourage thousands of students to purchase study materials for a score they might never reach, no matter how many times they take it. I want to find the silver lining in taking these tests, but I can’t recall ever hearing anyone say they loved taking the SAT or adored every moment of their ACT prep—especially considering the cost.
As if grades and scores and essays weren’t enough, admissions officers will soon scrutinize my extracurriculars. When I tell my friends and family about all the things I’m involved in and how much I love what I do, one of the comments that always arises is how impressive it’s going to look on my applications. That’s not why I do it, obviously, but it’s starting to feel like it. It’s an alarming comment to hear, time and time again, and it makes me wonder: what’s going to happen once I graduate? What if I lose the passion to volunteer my time for other people? What if I no longer want to write for fun or for magazines? What if I disengage myself from serving in leadership roles? Yes, I love what I do now, but is that only out of necessity? Does my passion for volunteering come from the fact that I need a certain amount of volunteer hours to graduate? Does my pursuit of publications stem from a want for more impressive things to put on a brag sheet or application? To be completely honest, I don’t know. I want to hope that once I graduate, I’ll keep it all up (because I really have found a home in all the extra things I do on top of academics). Perhaps it’s that these habits are built in high school and retained in college, but that goes back to the not-knowing-if-I-can-even-get-in-because-of-test-scores and it all snowballs into a big pit of unknowing.
My conclusion, therefore, is that college applications contribute excessive stress to an already stressful year with their laundry list of requirements. Top colleges seem to ask students to do so much more than is humanly possible. There are not enough hours in a day for every applicant to cure cancer and write a novel and serve as the varsity team captain and maintain a 4.5 GPA! Am I to believe that the sleepless nights spent shedding tears while working on applications compensate for all the hard work put in over the last three years? The aching need to get a higher SAT score and take more APs and better understand yourself in order to write about it for a bunch of strangers is heartbreaking to watch, and even more difficult to experience. I’ve been watching a lot of college acceptance videos recently, dreaming of the day an Ivy-sealed letter will arrive at my door (or in my inbox, I suppose). The dream is crushed when I remember my friends struggling to balance it all because it’s so difficult to apply to college and be a good student and hold a job and extracurriculars and volunteer hours and it’s all too much.
So what exactly is this high school junior’s take on college admissions? Yes, I’ve bagged on admissions for the past four paragraphs, but really, that’s because I don’t know how to perceive the process. Applications are looming over my head and I hate that, and I think until I go through it myself, I won’t be able to really let that fear and judgment go. But until then, I’m proud of the seniors who are getting through them and I’m proud of the seniors who’ve decided it’s okay to not know what they’re doing after high school.
In the end, it seems, this is all just another moment within our lives, something that is big and scary and important now that may lose its meaning down the line. But because it’s still so important to my life, college admissions and the choices I make are constantly on my mind. I hate that everything I do feels like it’s part of a scheme to get Harvard or Brown to accept me, but I’m grateful that at the very least, I’ve discovered things I love to do. I’m glad I’ve retaught myself math problems that I never thought I’d be good at, thanks to the SAT. I cherish the moments I’ve spent talking to my senior friends because I know it can’t be easy to put everything aside to chat with a little junior. For my friends to advise me on what I should do to prepare for next year is incredible and gratifying. It’s also a scary reminder of what’s to come in the near future, but I hope I can do the same for my underclassmen friends when the time comes. With all that being said, the lurking, ever-pressing institution of higher education will weigh tirelessly on my life from now until graduation, sucking me into the labyrinth of school supplements and test scores and essays. The silver lining of it all, though, is that at least the hope of getting into one of my top schools will accompany me the whole way through.