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The Meadows School

Opinion: The college application process is toxic

If you google “how to get into college,” more than a billion results will pop up. The college industry has turned into a capitalistic monster, made up of books, guides, videos, tutors, and endless experts that claim they’ll help you get into your dream college. People wear brand names and acceptances like a mark of pride, and nowadays the college race has become more about the name and ranking than about the right fit.

Getting into college has slowly overtaken teenagers’ lives. We remark that the only reason we do extracurriculars is because it’ll look good on our résumé. We joke about how everything we do is simply to get into college. We brag about how many APs we take, how little sleep we get, how stressed out we are. It’s a competition of who will hurt themselves the most, sacrifice the most, for a chance to go to our dream school.

The idolization of our “dream school” is toxic in itself. When we find out someone’s applying to the same college as us we instantly scrutinize and analyze them, thinking of them as the “enemy.”  We stop thinking of each other as friends or people, and instead see each other as GPAs, test scores, and achievements.

We think: she’s applying to the same place as me, but her GPA is lower so I must be better than her. She doesn’t love the school as much as I do, so she clearly doesn’t deserve it. She’s the president of one club, so I need to be the president of three. She’s taking four APs, so I must be stupid if I’m only in three.

It’s become a battlefield where our friends and classmates are our “opponents” on the opposing side. We put all our hopes into our dream schools, telling ourselves that it is the only place where we’ll be happy, and that if we don’t get in it’s just further proof of our failures. We convince ourselves that nothing matters except getting into our dream school, no matter what the cost is.

I, as a senior, am guilty of all of this and more. I get mad at myself for not having as high a score or as impressive a resume as the next student. I feel guilty for sleeping instead of studying more for a test. This morning, I woke up and thought: I’m a bad person for sleeping for five whole hours. If I do badly because of this, it’ll mean I’m a failure.

Conversely, I feel a sick sense of pride out of not taking care of myself properly if it means I have a better chance of getting an A. If I skip a few meals to get that A, it must be worth it, right? If I don’t sleep one night, that’s OK, because it’s normal, right?

I understand why society is so obsessed with where we go to college, and what we’ll do to get there, because I harbor the same obsession. But we need to realize that this obsession, this toxicity, needs to stop.

The truth is, even if I preach about how you’ll be happy no matter where you end up, you’ll still stress, worry and freak out as deadlines come closer and closer. But it’s the truth. My sister applied to Duke as a last-minute addition, and even forgot that decisions were coming out the day she was accepted. It wasn’t her first, second, or even third choice. But she’s told me that she couldn’t have been happier at Duke, and it ended up being the place where she truly belonged. I used to think that there was only one college I could really be happy at, but now I’m trying to broaden my perspective. I am not my college’s ranking or acceptance rate. My ultimate goal is not to get into college, but to simply be as happy and work as hard as I possibly can to achieve my dreams.

It’s important to realize the toxic culture in college admissions. Our anxiety and stress level isn’t normal or healthy. It’s gritty and raw and unsettling. It’s nausea and headaches and not sleeping all night and vomiting and crying and the little voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough. It’s mental breakdowns and showering at 1 a.m. and spending more time on the Common App than with your family and friends. It’s unfair and terrifying and tragic, and something needs to give. We need to give a little.