Trials and tribulations of college admissions

My parents tell me a lot of stuff. Most parents do. One thing they’ve told me over the years is that grades come first, meaning that grades, and having good ones specifically, comes before going to clubs or extracurriculars or hanging out with friends.

I think it’s a universal message that most kids have probably heard at least once in their lifetime, if not more frequently. And that’s always made a lot of sense to me, since colleges value grades over anything else. And in high school, the only thing you can think about is getting into college. So why wouldn’t we put grades above all else?

Mainly because I think it completely decks the mental health of every teenager in the US. And I don’t think that’s an overstatement.

The constant focus on a number, on being the perfect student and having straight A’s, is really hard on kids. And as a result, kids start prioritizing their grades over genuine happiness, and all to get into college. That’s messed up.

The easy solution to this would be to get rid of college. Obviously, that’s ridiculous. I don’t think college is a bad thing. The problem is the admission process, which is painful at best.

I think we should evaluate how we should treat getting into college. Because now more than ever, I think it’s reshaping our values as a society.

The Varsity Blues scandal is a good indicator of this; parents were willing to cheat and set aside any of the values that they probably had instilled in their kids just for them to get into a good school. Not only that, but they deprived a probably more deserving kid of a spot at the school. It was clearly immoral.

Yet they still did it, because in our culture, we have been conditioned to think that college is going to make or break the rest of our life. I don’t know how or when that happened, but it did, and now we’re in this mess.

I guess you can’t exactly blame those parents for thinking that way. They obviously took that view to an unhealthy extreme, but they have the same mindset that everyone else does: do whatever it takes to get in. They just happened to have the money to cheat in the way they did.

We kind of do it at a different scale at New Trier. Think of the money we pour into ACT tutoring or college counseling; it’s not cheating exactly, but it is kind of crazy to put all of that into a college you’re going to have to pay for.

And even more simply than using money, we start prioritizing what will look good for colleges over everything else. Carefully calculating our every move over the course of four years just to craft the perfect application, deciding what we’ll do in our free time so that colleges think we’re good enough for them.

So while the whole college scandal was extreme, I don’t think it’s surprising. The motivation there was really no different than the motivation to join service clubs or rowing. It just added an element of immorality to the systemic issue that plagues every kid over 14 and their parents, so that’s what set it apart.

And this brings us back to the phrase ‘grades before everything else’. It’s a harmless comment, but even so it perpetuates the idea that college is the most important thing in the world.

As we continue to see more competitive admissions into colleges and more emphasis on good schools, I think we stray farther away from what matters in life. Mental health, happiness, finding something you’re passionate about. People will continue to do whatever it takes, regardless of the negative effects.

At this point, it’s kind of a survival skill; if you’re not doing it all, you’re not doing enough in the eyes of the admissions officers or so we think. While I think reevaluating what we find important in life is important, I don’t think that’s enough.

What we need is colleges to enact actual change in regards to admissions process.  I don’t know what that would look like, but it’s frankly not my job to figure that out.

They got us into this mess. It’s their job to get us out of it.