College Admissions Scandal Through the
Eyes of a Junior
By Caroline P.
April 23, 2019
The college admissions scandal is the story that won’t die. At least three times a week since the story broke, I find myself reading article after article about the intricacies of the biggest news to rock education this year. My visceral reaction to hearing about the 50 indicted parents paying for their children to get into school was disgust. Not disgust with the parents, the colleges, or the students, but with an educational system that would let this happen in the first place. It might be easy to think that the scandal is an isolated event committed by a small group of privileged parents, but it’s not.
And if those people could get away with something like this so easily, what does that say about the college system in general? The parents, yes, but what about the schools, the teachers, the counselors, and ultimately, what does that say about us, the students?
The same week the story broke, I walked into a meeting with my parents and college counselor, Mrs. O’Grady. We discussed course registration for my upcoming senior year, and I worked to squeeze in as many classes and electives as humanly possible. And boy, did the irony hit me.
Forgive my generalizing here, but I’m willing to go out on a limb to say that most high schoolers struggle to balance all the different academic demands with extracurricular responsibilities. I don’t need to go into the particulars of how many students fill their time with play rehearsal, soccer practice, a part-time job, etc. That’s a given for most of us. And for most of us, we gladly embrace that. I love all the many ways in which I can explore and pursue my interests. I know I have to learn how to balance my commitments. What I don’t love is having to bargain my passions so that I can be forced to play a high stakes college admissions game.
So there I was, sitting in the college counseling office, staring down the barrel of an AP-loaded shotgun of a senior year. The college story that I had tried to separate myself from was right in front of me as I began to honestly examine how I, and every Westridge student, approach the college process. Despite trying to live my most authentic life, many of the activities and classes I commit to are influenced by my desire to get straight A’s and to push myself to my limit in the hopes of winning ultimate world affirmation and acceptance: the holy grail of college admission.
Maybe I’m being overdramatic, but there’s something deeply disturbing and defeating about the internal bargaining and surrendering one has to do in the name of education. This is a system in which students focus on the best ways to study for the AP rather than the importance and application of the material. This is a system in which students stay up past midnight every single day of the week. This is system in which relationships with family and friends are neglected for homework. This is a system in which students feels exhausted, burnt out, and frustrated most, if not all, of the time. This is a system in which success matters more than love of learning.
The narrative of being overworked is a broken record in the Westridge Upper School, especially in the throes of junior year. Sophia L.,’20, echoed exactly what I was and am feeling: “Obviously I care about my grades, but I don't get any sleep anymore. You can’t enjoy anything if you aren’t getting sleep.”
Students end up making decisions for college instead of what they are curious about. “I take classes that I don't want to take, specifically AP classes...I take them solely for college,” remarked Jenna H.,’20. Solaar K.,’20, echoed Jenna about the same pressure in regards to her course load: “In sophomore year, I took classes that I was really interested in because I really wanted to and I thought they were really fun, and I had such a good year because I chose things that I actually wanted to do. This year I felt real pressure because it seemed like everyone was telling me, ‘You didn’t work hard enough. You’re not going to get into good colleges.’ So I am taking APs this year. I love what we’re learning, but now that it’s crunch time, it’s just all about the test. This isn’t what learning should be.”
The constant pressure to get into college is the running soundtrack in the background of every pursuit--even those deserving of our best intentions. “When I do service work, my intentions become about filling a box on my college applications instead of what they should be: helping others,” lamented yet another junior Ellie M.,’20.
Here’s a truth: As I write this, I know that I am one of the least stressed in my grade. The amount of times I have chosen to do things that make me happy over my classes is much, much more than the average Westridge student. I have let homework go to write articles, work on costumes for the theatre productions, read a book that has hooked me, and prepare Student Voices assemblies. The sad thing about these choices is that they were never received well. My grades are lower, and I constantly feel ashamed for not working hard enough in school. And I know I’m not the only one--not by a long shot.
The sad thing about living under the tyranny of college admissions in America is that in my core, I believe that Westridge does make an effort to de-emphasize the priority of college admissions, but it’s one voice among many, and the message is, at best, mixed. Follow your heart! But don’t let your grades drop. Pursue your interests! But make sure to load up on APs.
On the rare occasion when I have bravely chosen to step outside of the tyranny of college admission, I’ve been rewarded with deeply meaningful learning experiences. Case in point: I took Perspectives in Literature this year, not an Honors or AP course, but a whole extra English class because it’s a genuine academic interest. Bonus! The class, full of like-minded students, has reignited my love of literature. That’s not to say that it isn’t work and a whole lot of it, but the class reminded me how good it feels to learn, to wholeheartedly stretch myself, and the joy that comes with it.
Let me be very clear: I love school. I love my school. I love the teachers who challenge and support me. I love being with my friends who inspire me. What I don’t love is the pressure to sacrifice the best part of who I am and what I have to offer to a toxic college system that is rigged against my better conscience and what I know to be true.
We all play a role in the sadistic game of college admissions, parents, teachers, colleges, and yes--the students. Because of this, in a strange way I am thankful for the college admissions scandal. It has made me increasingly aware of the game I play every day, a game harmful to my overall wellbeing and the wellbeing of my peers. It has made me realize how I’ve forgotten my deep curiosity and real love of learning. It has reminded me that no matter what happens I have worth that goes much deeper than grades, test scores, and college admission. So the question now for me has become: how can I fight against this manipulative system if the rest of the world continues to subscribe to these measures of success?