Orange County School of the Arts

Opinion: College reaction videos are symptomatic of middle class problems

If you hop onto YouTube today, you may soon encounter a very strange subgroup of videos. Often, they are titled as “college admission” or “college decision” reactions, with buzzwords and striking emojis scattered throughout the headers. The thumbnails display shots of high schoolers with gaping jaws, staring aghast at their computer screens.

In the background, the crests of several prestigious universities are usually superimposed. Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, Yale. This mention of elite schools is what captivates the audience for these videos, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views.

It’s easy to tell who likes this kind of content — the videos are widely popular with many middle/upper middle class high schoolers. Similarly, the creators of these videos fit this subset of the population. They seem ambitious, hard working, and sadly, afflicted by a perverse obsession with elite schools.

Superficially, the whole point of these videos is to see the “reactions” of these students to their admissions. The kids duly comply — they scream and hoot ecstatically upon admission, or pitifully shrink away on rejection. Put this way, the videos sound odd, and a little obsessive — it’s fine to be ambitious and want to succeed, but such extreme reactions appear pitiful and desperate.

But having watched many of these films, it is impossible to deny that there is some allure to them. Others agree — they are raved about by my fellow high schoolers and do extremely well on YouTube. A video like this is a huge windfall for a small YouTuber — there are many cases in which one with less than a hundred subscribers hits thousands of views on this type of clip. I imagine that, subconsciously, these videos attract viewers for the same reasons that made gladiatorial bouts so popular and car crashes on the highway slow everyone down.

We are drawn to suspense and emotion and failure. No matter how hard to watch rejection may be, it is also hard to resist. Tossed in with this is the sexy appeal of the glittering Ivy League, and the universally shared tale of the middle class — a kid with a dream fighting for it. It all creates a strong rapport between the middle class viewer and the similarly middle class creator.

But the undeniable truth of these YouTube videos is that they are very, very strange. They are amateurishly shot, and often within the most private of locations — a bedroom, a house, a time when the student is alone. Moreover, the reactions of these students are real, and raw, and in the moment. The videos are revealing — in just the five minutes of each clip, the viewer bears witness to the hopes and dreams and lives of these kids. It’s instantly clear what kind of people they are, what their families are like, and how they feel about themselves. It all leaves me feeling a little gross — as if I’ve violated someone’s personal space.

In many ways, these videos are miniature case-studies of the striving that characterizes modern America’s middle class culture and a society unsure of the future. From one view, the clips are testament to the degree to which the public and private lives of people have meshed. These videos display some of the most personal, revealing facets of these students’ personalities.

At one point, it would be considered strange and audacious to post something like this, but to older generations, I’m sure it does feel weird. But these students do it so nonchalantly and effortlessly. It also reveals a student and societal subculture obsessed with the signifiers of educational status divorced from any context. Every video presenter has their favorite schools and their “safeties” but all of these choices reflect status rather than intellectual justification. It’s more likely for an Ivy League school to offer a full ride scholarship than for any of the students in these videos to joyously celebrate acceptance into the Engineering school at Michigan (ranked #9 in the country) rather than Dartmouth (#50). At this point, all one’s college is about is what makes a better humble brag or looks good on the back of the family SUV.

All of this serves to show how far we’ve come as a society — and also how far we’ve fallen. It’s great that students have ambitions and goals. But this crazed obsession with status and elite schools is ridiculous. The advent of technology and the internet have brought about wonderful growth in connectivity and health and information. But they have also resulted in the erosion of many of our social norms and cultural pillars. These videos are strong examples of that.

They also fuel a vicious cycle. Many of the vloggers of these videos note that they were inspired to film their reactions after watching those of other students. Freshmen get caught up in this loop when they watch videos filmed by seniors, and dream of one day making their own. These videos and these colleges have become a weird sort of modern day porn — they are lusted over and dreamed about, and pervert the notion of academic and intellectual pursuit. Students should be encouraged to succeed and work hard, yes. But more importantly, they should be encouraged to learn, not chase after some fancy college just because all their lives they’ve been told to.

As a footnote, I’ve included some of these videos for your viewing (dis)pleasure: