The Irony of Elite College Culture

While the competitiveness of the college admissions process pushes some to their academic and extracurricular limits, others are discouraged by the prospect of wasting so much time and effort on a goal that can often seem far from feasible.

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By Jaden Bae

The landscape of college admissions has paved the way for something ridiculous. The extreme selectivity of top colleges means that every year, countless brilliant and overqualified high school students are rejected from their dream schools. The near impossibility of squeezing beneath record-low acceptance rates can serve as both a motivating and demoralizing factor for Stuyvesant students. While the competitiveness of the college admissions process pushes some to their academic and extracurricular limits, others are discouraged by the prospect of spending so much time and effort on a goal that can often seem far from feasible. 

For some, the selectivity of elite colleges gives them the motivation to succeed in high school, both in their grades and extracurricular activities. Many students have a deep-seated desire to gain admission to these top schools, whether it is innate or externally motivated. “As you get further in high school, you become more aware of what you need to do to succeed in that [college] process, and I think that’s driven me to try harder in school,” junior Ty Anant said. As Anant learned more about what top colleges expected, he found that his own goals adjusted to those high standards. 

On the other hand, students can be discouraged from expounding such significant amounts of energy into their studies by the prospect of it going to waste. “I don’t like the idea that I can put in as much effort as I have and still not get the outcome that I want,” junior Margaux Scandura said. Shrinking acceptance rates and stories of inexplicable rejections from top colleges can contribute to a sense of helplessness in the admissions process. 

This sentiment is shared by junior Myha Hill. “When [I] compare [myself] with the myriad of other students at Stuyvesant with major accomplishments, the state of college admissions makes working so much feel pointless,” Hill said. “I have taken on extra work and extracurriculars when I didn’t have the time at the expense of rest or mental health, in the name of college acceptances, when I would not have otherwise.” Colleges’ purported focus on not only grades but also extracurriculars often causes students to overextend themselves across many demanding time commitments.

At the same time, some feel their approach to schooling has been unaffected by the looming stress of college admissions. “There’s this idea or expectation that you should be improving as you become more comfortable with Stuy, and then there’s the urgency of college admissions starting in junior year. But my standard for success has definitely changed. I think I’ve realized more of what I’m capable of, and I try to reconcile that with the grades I’m getting and my performance at school,” an anonymous junior explained. This attitude is one that may ultimately lead to more emotional and academic fulfillment, yet it stands in opposition to the tide of grade obsession that rules many students’ lives.

The well-used mantra among students that claims “colleges want to see improvement” in one’s grades is only reinforced by steadily decreasing acceptance rates at elite schools. As applicant pools grow and seats in incoming classes do not, students try to pick out which figures on their transcripts will help them stand out and jump to the top of the applications pile. As Stuyvesant grows increasingly challenging over students’ four years, they feel they must fight their peers and sacrifice their relaxation time in order to stimulate an uptick in their academic success.

Overall, whether college admissions demoralize students or not, they certainly detract from students’ mental health. They put forth impossible demands, inevitably leading to feelings of inadequacy or pushing students to stretch their schedules in ways that compromise their wellbeing. Both scenarios nearly always end in disappointment. Students often spend hours a day on schoolwork and extracurriculars, overworking themselves and siphoning away the time they have left to simply be teenagers. 

With this deprivation of time for self-reflection also comes the risk that one will overwork oneself just to find out the dream school wasn’t “the dream” after all. The college admissions process should be an exciting opportunity for students to learn about institutions that align with their needs and desires. However, elite college culture blinds students from the schools that could truly have helped them reach their fullest potentials. There have been countless students who went to “Top 20” schools who would’ve been better off at lesser-known institutions, and many others who attended smaller schools that weren’t their top choices and found them to be amazing fits.

Ultimately, though students can wish for a more relaxed or less selective admissions process, it doesn’t appear as though the college landscape will change much in the near future. It then falls on the students to shift their own mindsets in the hopes that they can avoid suffering the mental toll college admissions so often takes. Anant offered a piece of advice given to him by a teacher: “You shouldn’t really do anything with the goal of getting into college, but what you’re going to do afterwards. Do things you think you’ll be interested in long term.” It is imperative that students recognize that the state of college admissions is absurd, the selectivity almost comical, and empower themselves to move on with their high school careers without allowing it to affect them—difficult as it may be. And indeed, this seems to be the only way to avoid the disillusionment that festers within the college admissions process.