Today’s College Admissions Process is Overrun With Disadvantage and Contradiction: Here’s Why

November 10, 2020


Speaking as a high school Senior in the midst of the college application season, the notion that weekends are a time of leisure and relaxation is one that, speaking for my peers, can be rejected entirely. With a week of schoolwork behind us, we teeter along the lines of what many casually describe as a “mental breakdown,” finding ourselves suspended between confidence in four years-worth of academic achievements and the seemingly never-ending anxiety of the college application process.


It’s a process of unparalleled importance, carrying the power to determine our future- or so society has allowed us to believe. At the mere age of 17, we are expected to make a choice which we will feel the repercussions of for the rest of our professional careers. It’s a stress that can hardly be quantified and is particularly individualized;  it has a lot to do with your family values, socioeconomic status, academic prestige, and the kind of future you imagine for yourself. And while there exists the argument that college is not as important as society makes us believe, to which many cite successful figures like Steve Jobs who dropped out of college, this disposition is not held widely enough to leave even a crack in the solidified view that a college education is a necessity in the modern world. 


The Rolling Stone, following the USC admission scam that countless Hollywood celebrities were tried on and are now serving time for, wrote that “the college admissions system is racist. It is classist. It is sexist. It is almost entirely reliant on a set of breathtakingly outdated criteria, with the vibrancy and intellectual curiosity of an individual student being flattened into a set of numbers.” The most well-known of those numbers is the SAT. Hiding behind three simple letters is a world of anxiety, hours of studying, and the reduction of one’s qualifications to a fraction out of 1500. The SAT has been around since 1926, and has been marketed by the College Board as an IQ test, an impartial measure of one’s intelligence and academic ability. John Katzman, a former employee at the Princeton Review, a renowned SAT prep company, writes in “I taught America to beat the SAT. That’s how I know it’s useless” and that, “ In the end, the SAT was a mediocre test of middle school skills with a layer of gamesmanship that advantaged certain kinds of thinking over others.” And while practice doesn’t always make perfect, the opposite seems to apply to high schoolers studying for the SAT. Many attend academies preparing them solely for the purpose of a 1600, where they spend hours reviewing nearly every SAT out there. Others seek out intensive tutoring, seeing as the skills tested on the SAT do not clearly align with the skills taught in school. 


“I’m a pretty good student, I got mostly A’s in high school and never really struggled that much ” an anonymous Senior detailed, “but when I had to take the SAT I couldn’t believe how bad my score was. I ended up going to Prestige, [an SAT prep academy] on the weekends. You basically sit there for 6 hours straight and practice. And they, like, teach you the tricks of the test.” And when asked about the price of such preparation, the source uncomfortably detailed that they paid well into the thousands over the months they spent studying. So why do colleges rely so heavily on a score that can be so easily bought, and bought only by a specific demographic at that?


This year, schools are becoming increasingly test-optional, a change brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which in a way deprecates the relevancy of a conversation about SATs. Many students are simply not able to sit for the test, while those that had the opportunity see it as an extra leg up in admissions. Whether or not colleges will continue to board the test-optional bandwagon is a question for next year’s applicants, who may be forced to take a standardized test after all. So for now, let’s take a look at extracurriculars, a now invaluable category of the Common App – sports in particular. A study by researchers William Bowen of Princeton and Eugene Tobin of Hamilton found that athletes have a 30% higher chance of being admitted to a school than non-athletic students with nearly identical transcripts. In this sense, the coaches of high school sports hold an immense amount of power within a process that feels like it should be way out of their control. A perfect example of this was the recent USC-Hollywood scandal. Addressing the controversy in his article “The Admissions Scandal Is Really a Sports Scandal”, NY Times columnist David Leonhardt writes that, “The alleged scam involved payments funneled from parents to college coaches, who in return would falsely identify applicants as athletic recruits to the admissions office. Just like that, the students then become virtual shoo-ins for acceptance.” The role of athletics in college admissions is ridiculously large, and its influence on acceptance rate shows how truly disproportionate the acceptance rates you’ll find listed under schools are, as you peruse college lists. Why should your academic career be determined by whether or not you can kick a soccer ball or catch a football?


Now, should we take a break from the culture of stress that admissions foster and put our imaginations to use- let’s fast forward a couple of months. We are now in the spring, the season where you receive that fateful Yes or No decision, leaving you either ecstatic or devastated. Say you’ve gotten into the school of your dreams. You’ve spent hours writing, editing, and reviewing your personal statement, cutting it down to meet the exact word count. You’ve thoroughly researched your school in order to take advantage of the 200-word supplemental asking you why you want to go there. You send your essays to friends, family, and your counselor to be picked apart. You’ve filled out each tedious section of the Common App and listed each of your extracurriculars in order of importance to you. You’ve compiled test scores, recommendation letters, toured the school, attended information sessions, interviewed, and finally, months after you click that submit button – you’re in.


But your troubles aren’t over yet – now you’ve gotta pay for it. Tuition can vary from school to school, some private colleges reaching the startling number of nearly $60k a year. And the higher you scroll on that esteemed US News “Best Universities” list, the higher the price tags climb. Business Insider claims that college tuition is at an all time high and is expected to only increase. While part of this increase may be to accommodate financial aid, the higher tuition becomes, the more financial aid people will need creating a seemingly inescapable loop. Additionally, the premonition that school meets 100% of calculated financial need can never truly be applicable, otherwise, no individual would ever struggle to pay for college, which we all know is not the case. Senior Noam Levi explained in an interview that she is relying on academic scholarships, not just financial aid to pay for college because she plans to go to medical school. She explained that she can’t empty her bank account for an undergraduate degree, a factor colleges will not take into account when determining how much aid she is given. Put simply, the financial aid process is not a perfect system. If it was, why are there be 44.7 million Americans drowning in student loans?


At the end of the day, the admissions process is all about money, whether you buy your way in legally with the convenient donation of building on campus, or illegally, take Lori Loughlin for example. Money is involved in every step of the process, from your ability to participate in high school sports to your SAT preparation. Merely sending your application costs almost $100 per school. Around every turn, applicants must pay and someone is always making money, unveiling the hard truth that all college admissions really is a business endeavor- an industry. And it’s for this reason that lower-income students and minorities are statistically disadvantaged within the system. The college admissions process is ruled by two factors – race and money.


Nonetheless, there have been valiant efforts to diversify college campuses throughout the years, the most notable being Affirmative Action. Shrouded in controversy, coupled with a plethora of questions regarding the inner workings of the program, Affirmative Action has been hidden by colleges and universities across the country behind the phrase “holistic review.” Only recently, given the lawsuit underway against Harvard University for the ways in which Affirmative Action harms Asian-Americans rather than solely diversifying the campus, have we gotten an inside look into a process that is practically a resident on the national stage. A Princeton Review Press study, “showed that Asians need to score 140 points higher on the SAT than white students, 270 points higher than Latino students, and 450 points higher than black students in order to balance out the effects of racial bias when other variables are controlled.” Furthermore, the admissions process rated their character, in terms of likeability and charm, significantly lower, when no other accolades pointed towards said shortcomings. Highschool Senior James Lee, who is of Asian-American descent, spoke on the matter saying, “If affirmative action is supposed to help remedy for past racial injustices, then it wouldn’t make sense that Asian-Americans have to have the same or better applications than white students to get into the same schools.” Some even further question the weight given to race within the process, saying that it is within itself a vessel for systemic racism even if it was created with valiant intentions. 


The issue here isn’t that Affirmative Action is helping minorities, because after all, it isn’t the fault of African American and Hispanic students if the highschool education system has left them unprepared for college admissions, but rather that it subsequently depreciates the decoration of students of different backgrounds. While it should be making the playing field even, it’s only creating further imbalance. An anonymous writer of the Berkeley Political Review suggests an “alternative system [to Affirmative Action], which does not consider race, [that] will analyze each applicant’s level of disadvantage individually without presuming that they come from a better or worse situation in society as a result of their race.” It’s a lofty, but reasonable goal, given that Affirmative Action helps students based on race, but leaves a lot of other educational disadvantages out of the admissions process, like socioeconomic status. Assuming that every minority student is being given the same education, even if they live in a predominantly white town or attend a prestigious high school, is propelling the notion that racial minorities may be less qualified for a university just because of the color of their skin. And while it is true that race does lead to plenty of disadvantage in a society highly populated with indications of systemic racism, it is not the only disadvantage a student can have. There needs to be a truly holistic system, rather than the one we have today, that analyzes lack of opportunity as created by race, but also by many other factors. Students are individuals, with different achievements, goals, and obstacles, that shouldn’t be defined by their race, or told that the color of their skin, something they cannot control, was a reason they got into a school. 


The college admissions process is a melting pot of disadvantage and contradiction. Where race can help you in some places, it can harm you in others. Where money is your biggest advantage, it can also — ironically — be of no value. I don’t have the answer to the corruptness of the system, nor do I believe there is truly one answer. And in a very real sense, my actions make me quite a hypocrite on the matter, because as much as I criticize the college admissions process, it is a system that I and every student around me adhere to and operate within. Because at the end of the day, just like everyone else, I would really like to get into my dream school. 

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