Opinion: We Need To Reclaim The College Admissions Process

TESTS: OPTIONAL. STRESS? NOT SO MUCH. Hovering above Stanford University, this word map displays responses from 30 Santa Rosa High School seniors when asked: how would you describe the college application process in one word? Lola Cook explained her choice— evil— saying, “It [applying to colleges] made me cry.” This year’s college admissions cycle is similar to that of last year with most schools going test-optional but with more, if still limited, opportunities to connect with schools. 

Article and Graphic by Molly Murphey

Opinion: We Need To Reclaim The College Admissions Process

I’m amazing. If a college doesn’t want me, that’s their loss. This is my mantra each time I log onto the Common App. For me, as for many of my peers, college applications are a long, arduous process. Yes, after hours of College Essay Guy videos and half a dozen virtual college tours, I’m prepared, but I’m also stressed beyond belief and I think I’ve accidentally trained a part of my brain to think like a college admissions officer. 

The tiny admissions officer compels my peers and me to ask ourselves: Do I go out for soccer this year even though I probably won’t make captain or should I double down on volunteer tutoring? Do I have time for a college visit with the upcoming exam? (That’s if you dare to visit a college before admissions decisions come out.) Should I apply to a four year university or the SRJC? The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated things by forcing students to weigh their education against their safety.

Many schools have sought to take pressure off of applicants this year by switching to a test-optional policy (that’s for the SAT and ACT). Stanford explains the change this way: “[s]tudents may continue to self-report test scores in their application if they would like. Applications without test scores will not be at a disadvantage. We urge students not to jeopardize their health or well-being to take future sittings of non-required tests.” University of California campuses are test-blind this year meaning that admissions officers “will not consider ACT or SAT test scores for admissions decisions or the awarding of scholarships for any applicants.” 

Why then, are Santa Rosa High School seniors electing to take the tests? Next month, Emi Burke, a senior, is sitting for her second SAT since the pandemic began. She views highly selective schools like Stanford as more test-recommended than test-optional. If the university didn’t care about test scores, they wouldn’t accept them at all, right? 

The problem with the way I had been approaching college admissions hit me during a virtual information session for an elite school. The representative spent 15 minutes talking about the school and its various programs and faculty, 30 minutes telling attendees what the school is looking for on applications and how students may make themselves more appealing and 15 minutes answering questions, most along the lines of: “Do I have a chance if my grades weren’t stellar in freshman year?” The answer boiled down to you can try… but probably not. 

At some point I sat down and asked myself why I was taking the optional SAT, why I was rushing to and from volunteer engagements to which I could not devote my full attention and whether I could really take that many AP classes this year. I wondered whether it was worth the trouble to get into some mystical perfect college if I was miserable now.

While talking over our experiences with the college admissions process at break, Ellie Marsh, a senior, said, “I feel like I’m always asking people what colleges they’re applying to and how high their GPAs are because I’m a little bit insecure out my chances of getting into a good school” and that the process “feels so isolating when no one talks about it.” There were murmurs of agreement around our table and it was good to know that if it was hard, at least I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Still, it’s sad that for most students the process is not one they look forward to.

I’m not discouraging you from applying to college and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be realistic about your admission chances and financial constraints. I’m saying that the college application process should be challenging, yes, but also empowering and fun. Remember that you’re choosing your school. It’s on the colleges to be good enough for you, not the other way around. It’s not going to get any easier, but I think that if we change our mindsets we can make it less painful. 

Say it with me: I am amazing and I’m going to kick butt. 

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