For most high school students, attending their dream university is the ultimate goal after graduation. Students will strive for the best grades, dedicate their time after school to extracurricular activities and spend hours at sports practice, all in the hopes of impressing some of the nation’s top universities.
However, no matter how much students do achieve, it never seems to be enough, as schools become more and more competitive.
As Fatima Guttierez, a sophomore at The MASTERS Program, said, “It’s almost like you have to cure cancer and become president of the United States to even have your application considered.”
This heightened level of competition is not a figment of students’ imagination but a fact. According to CNBC, the average acceptance rate has dropped from 35.9 percent to 22.6 percent since 2006.
And schools only seem to grow increasingly selective with every college application season.
As this competition to get into a top school becomes more difficult, many students feel pressured to have the “perfect application” — an application filled with nearly perfect grades, various leadership positions in clubs, amazing SAT scores, sports teams and even internships that are often not given to teenage students. All with a résumé-building process that can be extremely difficult to complete and navigate, beginning as early as a student’s freshman year of high school.
And it’s not uncommon for many students to have this nearly perfect application, like Jordan Ortega, a senior at Santa Fe High School who was accepted to the University of Chicago. The QuestBridge scholar said, “I did not necessarily have perfect grades; however, I had clubs almost every day of the week, was very involved with the school and did many seasons of sports.”
And while it may seem students are expected to do so much in high school, some educators believe it can actually be beneficial, saying it can help students discover what they are passionate about and what they want to study in college.
“You know the process of getting ready to apply to college can be very rigorous; it can definitely help students discover what they want to do in the future. You don’t want to study something and then realize this is not what I want to do with the rest of my life,” said Alejandro Jimenez, an adviser at College and Career Plaza.
And these extracurricular activities that students participate in don’t have to be boring, either — they can be quite enjoyable if students participate in activities they are truly interested in. Activities such as sports or writing for the school newspaper.
Some students may even view their extracurriculars as an outlet from a challenging life at home.
“My home life wasn’t necessarily the best, so all my school activities kept me occupied and gave me a place to go,” Ortega said.
So even if this process is competitive and tedious, students may discover how beneficial extracurriculars can actually be to them.
However, with how competitive the admissions process has become, many families find ways to cheat the system and help their student get admitted into the school of their choice, making this system unfair to students who don’t have the resources.
Powerful and/or very wealthy families could pay college counselors to help their student with the application process, pay for tutors and sports coaches to help get their athlete recruited — sometimes going as far as buying a student’s way into the school of their choice. Some have also faked items on applications to make the student more appealing. Some examples of this were revealed during the 2016 college admissions scandal, where several people where charged, including celebrity Lori Laughlin of the TV show Full House for using her wealth to influence her daughters’ acceptance into the University of Southern California.
There are other ways in which a student might gain an advantage when applying to colleges: attending a private high school that has connections to top institutions or even just having the financial means to not have to work a part-time job, allowing more time for school.
Many students say they feel discouraged that the college admissions process is flawed and doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. As a result, for many college applicants, the pressure for perfection will persist.