The Stress to be the Best: The Pressure of College Admissions

Our Everly Mag Writing Leaders were asked the question, what do you think is the biggest pressure teens your age are facing today?  We wanted to know what different types of pressure different teens might face and how we can all help each other with relieving some of this pressure. 

This article was written by our writing leader Emily.  Get to know our Summer 2018 Leaders here!

Most of my highest-achieving friends will tell you that it wasn’t necessarily their parents that pushed them to get all A’s and join their extracurriculars. They claim an inner drive to be the best at what they can do. This attitude sounds like exactly what every parent hopes to accomplish when raising their child – but what happens when that motivation stalls after that dream college decision comes out, or after senioritis hits, or when their GPA is docked by their first B? When they realize they’re not entirely sure what their passion was, or their reason behind wanting to squeeze in that low acceptance rate, and they aren’t sure how to continue without the pressure, built into their education since grade school, to be perfect?

Many adults will say that the high school world of today has evolved far past their own experience. We’re no longer occupied by stereotypical science fair volcanoes – you can find scores of teens in the news for developing their own apps, businesses, and inventions. As a response, higher education admissions have grown increasingly selective. Now, just being in an honors society or studying for your SATs won’t make you stand out – in an age where everyone else seems to have already come up with something, students are pushed to start their own initiatives, overcommit themselves to activities, and essentially, act like adults.

Image: From just 2010 to 2014, admissions rates at top US universities have faced a pointed decline, and continue to shrink each year. Via Graphic Sociology.

This may sound like a good thing at first glance. Forcing motivated students to become more creative and think outside the box is a valuable skill that could extend into their later careers. The slim acceptance rates help ensure top universities are truly filled with the best and brightest. The refining of the admissions process appears to be American meritocracy at its peak. What could be the downside? An important question, a consideration scoffed at by those who chide Generation Z as the “everyone gets a trophy” era, is – what about the rejects?

There are students who would very well succeed at their top choice institution but didn’t have the opportunity to travel to Tanzania and teach English over their summer breaks, the expensive technology accessible to them to create their own apps, or the materials to start their own business. The pressure to be constantly innovating and improving has stepped over a class of teens that can’t keep up, not through any fault of their own. Improving accessibility is a starting place for progress, and with the distribution of free laptops, iPads, and other materials through schools across the country, we have begun catching educational opportunity up with the times. There are still gaps to be filled – the student who has to babysit their younger siblings while their parents work isn’t going to be able to travel across the country for academic competitions as often as their peers, and the admissions process seems to be struggling to account for teens like them. Considering “merit alone” rather than a student’s circumstances ignores the factors that really develop the perfect applicant.


Image: The constant competition leaves lower income students at a glaring disadvantage. via The Huffington Post.

These students slipping through the cracks are one of the most obvious consequences of the college admissions hype. Even an acceptance letter, however, doesn’t come with a guarantee of a happy, fulfilling life. Students who successfully racked up their extracurricular lists, perfectly crafted their admissions essays, and got their 4.0 still may not have found their true purpose under the confinement of a one-track-mind mentality. Getting swept up in the process leaves little room for self-development along the way. The most important discoveries usually come in moments that can’t, and shouldn’t, fit into one of the ten activities slots on an application.

College admissions pressure, while a motivating factor for teen success, puts down disadvantaged students and confines teens to a goal whose meaning we’re not even entirely sure of yet. As soon as it’s over, the looming “what comes next?” is accompanied by a realization that the decision we’ve been clawing for since the beginning really has no end game. The reality is, an institution doesn’t equal intelligence. Moving forward, easing the weight of the higher education burden means accounting for all students and showing them that admissions aren’t everything. After all, what can the brand of a school do for you if you don’t even know what you want out of it?

Have you ever felt pressured by looming college admissions? Comment below!  

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