So dawns your senior year: one bound to be full of excitement and memories. Yet, it is a time of great apprehension. College applications hover on the near horizon. This is it. The ultimate test, the manifestation of your life so far. Over and over and over, you’ve been told that getting into college is the first step to becoming integrated into society and the greater world. You better make those apps look good.
I am probably one of the few people you will meet who was actually excited to start my college applications. The tedium did not scare me. And to be honest, I saw the whole college acceptance process as a challenge: I wanted to prove to the world — and to myself — that I was good enough, smart enough, and unique enough to be desired by all the best schools in the country.
So I began filling out boxes on my applications. Full of confidence, which quickly turned to frustration.
The first thing I noticed when filling out the common app was that none of my activities fit any of the descriptions offered. “Ultimate Frisbee” was not listed under sports. I couldn’t decide whether to describe robotics as “computer/technology” or “career oriented.” How could I even begin to categorize social dance?
See, colleges describe “activities” differently than most of us regular people. To us, an activity is something we spend our time doing, whether it is physical or mental. It can be anything from reading a book to being on a swim team that practices five days a week. But for colleges, an activity is something organized, with structure and defined leadership. They involve competition and success. Activities become ways to quantify our time, rather than ways to occupy it. To colleges, it is less important what you are doing, and more important how long you’ve been doing it and how many awards you’ve earned in the meantime.
Such technicalities didn’t bother me. Awards aside, I had a whole repository of activities to help me through the grueling process of describing life-changing experiences in the 150 characters of space given for recording accomplishments/successes. So I did not worry too much about the fact that no one knew what Cascade Challenge was; I figured “summited Mt. Rainier with youth-led outdoor expedition crew” would speak for itself.
Five months and five rejections later, I realized how wrong I was.
The college application process is fundamentally dangerous. Not just to the mental wellbeing and sanity of high school seniors everywhere. It is infecting our culture with insecurity and ultimately stripping us of creativity.
I have often heard students remark about how they joined an activity not because they wanted to, but because “it looks good on college apps!” To be fair, I’ve used that as a viable claim to recruit members to a club. But nowadays, community service is no longer about helping the people around you; it’s about counting hours. School is no longer about learning; it’s about getting good grades. There is no passion anymore.
Rather, the whole application system is based around comparison. And if we constantly question our merit against the people around us, eventually we will find ourselves lacking. Students become their own worst critic, constantly scrutinizing themselves. And nothing is more toxic to creativity — as Ken Robinson explained in his TED talk, the reason kids are more creative is because “Kids will take a chance… They’re not frightened of being wrong.”
But when we are told constantly that our future is on the line, suddenly there is pressure to not make mistakes. Made a bad choice? “Think about your future!” Failing a class? “Think about your future!” Should I take art or an AP? “Think about your future!” What they’re really saying is “How will this look on your college apps?”
If you don’t conform to the mold of a perfect student, you won’t get into college. And if you don’t get into college, you won’t have a career. And if you don’t get a career, you won’t be happy.
What happened to life experiences? To living in the present? Traveling? Getting a job? Finding something you actually enjoy doing? What happened to finding ourselves?
A few days before submitting my applications, a friend asked me, “who would you be if you didn’t do the things you do?” I was outraged. There’s no way I wouldn’t do the things I do! Even if dancing was outlawed, I’d still dance.
After spending countless hours writing about all my activities, I was convinced that who I am is defined by what I do. I was tied to the notion that without dance, without awards, without AP classes and good grades, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I had neatly wedged myself into the box of “perfect student.”
And in the midst of the application process, I completely lost myself.
Because even if I didn’t dance — even if I didn’t play ultimate, or build robots, or climb mountains and guide rivers — I would still be me. It is not the things I do that define me, it is how I do them. It is how I carry myself while dancing that is important; the dance does not matter. It is how I can assume leadership on a team; what type of team is irrelevant. It is how I’ve learned to observe and analyze team dynamics — whether that’s on robotics or while doing anything else in the world is not important. What really defines me is how I choose to approach life and learn from everything I experience. It is my attitude, my passion, my creativity.
And no matter how good of an essay I write — or how many essays I write — no panel of admissions officers will ever truly know me. I could tell them I’m an optimist, but they’ve never seen me motivate a team before a game we’ll inevitably lose. I could tell them I thrive off challenge, but they’ll never see the look in my eyes when someone doubts me because I’m a woman. I could tell them I’m vulnerable, but until they see me dance they won’t know what I mean by trust.
Because what admissions boards see and read is exactly what they ask for: grades, hours, awards. Numbers, numbers, numbers. And what they somehow overlook entirely is the thing that really matters: you. The best judge of character is your ability to hold on to who you are even in the face of adversity and disappointment. It is not how much you do, or how many awards you’ve won. It is about being true to yourself.
Now that’s not to say that college isn’t important, or that you shouldn’t fill out applications at all (though there are always alternate options if you look for them). But getting into that Ivy League school is just not worth the insecurity of feeling inferior.
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. (From: “Ex Yale Professor: For a Good Education, Avoid the Ivy League”)
The application process is undermining the real purpose of an education. College is about more than reputations and getting a job. It’s about the experience. It’s about the community. It’s about learning how to think.
That’s why the best college is not necessarily the most prestigious one. It is the college that will accept you for who you are, and cultivate a sense of belonging—a place where you feel comfortable making mistakes.
Rejection isn’t something to be feared. If you get lost in the stack of recommendation letters, just remember: the college application process, while important, is not the biggest moment of your life. Don’t let word counts and checklists confine you. And when applications try to put you in boxes, poke holes in the walls and always keep your eyes set on the outside.