It starts in high school, when everyone is either completely obsessed with padding their resume for college or could give less of a thought to it. If you pad it just enough and combine that resume with a GPA that defines all the work you’ve put into your academics, you’ll be rewarded with a letter that states your acceptance into a “prestigious” university. There’s a saying, “Competition brings out the best in… [results]…and the worst in people.” And yes, while pitting people against each other can result in higher productivity and increased motivation, it also creates an unhealthy environment of untrustworthiness and an affiliation of achievement with winning. With many high school populations especially those in areas with high-income and overzealous parents, college is not only a gateway to higher success but also a status symbol. This air of competition is now rooting itself amongst college students who have to carve out a path to grad school.
I was at dance practice last week with a group of new girls when an 8th grader (remember, she’s only thirteen) asked me how I got into UCLA. I gave her the answer I give everyone else, by working hard at the things I loved. My grades weren’t straight A’s, but I spent a lot of time outside of school dedicating myself to dance, community service and yearbook. Because I truly loved doing these things, it was easy to write about my passion for them in my application and I believe that this is what trumped any B’s on my transcript or any other black marks I may have had against me. She responded by saying that everyone does extracurriculars, and why were mine any more special than the ones her parents made her do? To that, I did not have an immediate answer.
Coming from an Asian community, even though my parents never forced me to do things I didn’t like, I was surrounded by hundreds of kids who had even their college majors decided for them. The helicopter parenting stemmed from both a lack of knowledge about the college admissions process as well as the fact that so many equate college acceptances with the potential career success of their children. I met kids who were in the band because they loved it, and I met just as many who were in the band because their parents though t it might get them scholarships. I met kids who spent the summer working for pocket money, while others flocked to test-prep centers two to three years before they touched the real SATs. I myself applied undeclared, while many of my friends were forced to apply into to big four “stable” careers: Doctor, Engineer, Accountant, and Lawyer. And, despite coming from a academically “liberal” family, reflection upon my high school experiences has revealed to me that I too had done things just to stay ahead of the curve and not because I loved them.
If I could go back and answer that girl, I would say this: admissions officers read hundreds, if not thousands of essays during their careers. They know when someone is being fake. They value the person who dedicates themselves not only to their academics but to the hobbies and causes they are passionate about, and value even more someone who is able to balance all of those things. Once you arrive in university, those who succeed are those who are capable of making their own independent decisions. They see application after application that looks more or less the same, especially since many parent struggle to give their kids the independence necessary to find the correct college and major fit for them.
This week’s topic is collaboration. The reason I chose to write about the high school experience of many kids is because college acceptances have become a competition. It’s become a race to the “prestigious” universities, instead of a journey to find the school that fits best for you. (I wonder if that’s why there has been such a level of stress increase reported amongst college freshman- because high schools students are given less and less independence when making decisions around the college experience they wish to have and is best for them.) The high school students around me would offer to study together, but were reluctant to give out college information they had found. They would offer to attend workshops with you, but wouldn’t tell you about the free counseling services that were offered at the career center. Of course, there are always exceptions. But this climate I am talking about seems to have infiltrated hundreds of competitive high schools throughout the country, where large group of students are aiming for select top public and private universities.
This competition has significantly replaced collaboration in the high school atmosphere, and it continues to further delve into the college campus community. As a freshman and recent high school graduate, I say that there needs to be a change within the high school academic culture before it poisons the college communities. Before the end of this year, I would like to write a follow up blog about my experiences with academic stress and competition in college and preparing for graduate school that will hopefully help me (and you!) gain a wider perspective on the role and mage that excessive competition causes.
Remember, genius is created through collaboration.