College admissions process leaves students stressed, anxious
By Cole Pirwitz, ’16 and Ellise Shafer, ’17
As senior Gabe Murray enters UAHS on the first day of school, he finds himself thinking about his future. There is an uncomfortable stress that hangs over him, as well as many of his classmates who are also thinking forward.
Those who have already started the college admission process know that it is not an easy one. College visits, standardized tests, completing the common app-the list goes on and on. Many stress about grades: if it’s too late to get their GPA up, or if they need to take the ACT again.
“You need amazing grades to get into college [for our generation],” Murray said.
This statement is now truer than ever, with application rates to elite universities being the highest and acceptance rates the lowest ever reported, according to the article “Best, Brightest, and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95%” by New York Times writer Richard Pérez-Peña.
Stanford University, for example, receives more and more applications each year. However, in 2014, Stanford received 42,167 applications- and sent only 2,138 acceptance notices, as stated in the article.
“Deluged by more applications than ever, the most selective colleges are, inevitably, rejecting a vast majority, including legions of students they once would have accepted,”Pérez-Peña wrote. “Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.”
In order for students to beat the competition, many resort to cramming their schedules full with activities- which can in turn have a negative effect on their actual schoolwork.
“[It’s] hard to keep up with colleges’ demands because you need to fit everything into your schedule. You need extracurriculars and sports, and then on top of that you need to go on [college] visits,” Murray said. “It all takes away from homework—which ends up being your grades, making it a lot to fit into such a tight schedule.”
Colleges are expecting the best out of students, in the classroom and out. Such high pressure for the future results in the misconception that if a student does not get into the most prestigious college they apply to, they have failed.
Despite this, Murray shared that he, along with other students he knows, did not take his education seriously in his first years at UAHS.
“When [we] got into high school, [we] really didn’t take the first year seriously,” Murray said. “[We] are now struggling to catch up and have felt depressed because of it.”
A lot of students will not feel the severity of depression over this issue, but many will feel an increased level of stress. A study done in 2013 by the American Psychological Association shows teens experience a 5.8 stress level during the school year, which is deemed to be unhealthy (3.9 is normal) and rivals adult stress levels of 5.1. Even during August, which is considered summer for most, the report found teens had a stress level of 4.6, which is still unhealthy.
As a result of the Common Application going live Aug. 1, senior Abigail Deshler has felt her stress levels rise.
“The college admissions process has caused me to be more stressed because I don’t know what to expect quite yet,” Deshler said. “I want to be able to have options when it comes time to choose a college that is right for me.”
The Buckeye Effect
One reason that Upper Arlington students might feel more anxiety to be admitted to “the right” colleges is that one prestigious university sits literally adjacent to the district.
The Ohio State University is located less than 15 minutes away from the high school. OSU admissions has become much more selective with its admissions over the past 15 years, and with 21 percent of graduated seniors from UAHS going there this fall and even more who applied, there is a pressure to get accepted into OSU.
Junior Madeleine McKenna said she feels this pressure while thinking about college and what it might take to get in.
“There is a lot of pressure at UA [to get into Ohio State] because a lot of the students are so smart and so many kids end up going there,” McKenna said. “There is a lot of competition, so it adds onto the pressure.”
In Palo Alto, California, there is more of an epidemic of pressure that high school students feel from nearby colleges. Palo Alto High School is in the shadow of Stanford University, which only admitted 5 percent of applicants in 2014. Many employees of the university live in Palo Alto and their children attend the high school. With such pressure coming from the parents and school, students in Palo Alto feel the stress, and some even felt it enough to take their own lives.
Frank Bruni, columnist for The New York Times, wrote in his article “Best, Brightest- and Saddest” that between May 2009 and January 2010, five Palo Alto teens stepped in front of trains to take their lives. And, three more did the same between October 2014 and April 2015, forming a fatal pattern. Local newspapers called it a “suicide contagion” and there are now suicide lookouts patrolling the railways.
Even though OSU is no Stanford, students still feel the pressure of being so close to such a well-known university. As OSU is by far the most popular college for UA students, this can bring pressure to students to at least be admitted to the university, even if they don’t end up going there in the fall.
Another source of the pressure to get into a prestigious college comes from the people closest to many teens: their parents.
By nature, parents want what is best for their children. They want them to be successful and happy, but many parents end up putting high standards to which some kids can’t live up, President of the American Psychological Association Alan Kazdin said.
“The research shows that we consistently overestimate their self-control, ability to persevere and stay on task, consistency of performance, and social ability,” Kazdin said in his article “Why Can’t Johnny Jump Tall Buildings?”.
Murray agrees with Kazdin, saying that he feels pressure from his parents to go above and beyond academically.
“There is a lot of pressure to be an overachieving student,” Murray said. “Most of it comes from parents, but you really need to focus in on what you want and how hard you are willing to work. To be an over achieving student, you need to put in a lot of time and effort to be that student.”
With college admissions having grown so competitive over the past 15 years, it is a whole different monster than what it was in the 1980s, when most parents were applying to colleges.
“[My parents] want me to be successful as bad as I want to be successful, but that ends up sometimes being too much pressure,” McKenna said.
Added to all this is the pressure students feel from society as well as their own communities. For some students, the name of their future college might not matter, but for others, it definitely does.
“The name does matter to some people. If you say that you went to Ohio State to someone you won’t be as judged as if you said you went to Columbus State,” Murray said.
A college or university’s name does seem to carry significant weight. This though, could not always be what is right for the student. The most important thing is finding a right fit, and with many elite colleges and universities turning away 70-90 percent of applicants, rejected students are left still needing to find the best school for them, even if it isn’t considered the “best” college.
Finding the right school has mostly to do with the student’s comfortability in the environment it offers, according to a research report written by W.J. Bruce Fleming, an academic adviser at the College of Charleston.
“The institution’s overall feel becomes extremely important in determining the relationship that develops between the college environment and its students,” Fleming wrote.
However, McKenna said that when looking at colleges, she focuses more on the academic aspects.
“Education plays a big part in colleges you look at because you want to look beyond college and the jobs you might want after,” McKenna said.
One might call this Ivy League expectations, but does the reputation of the college really have anything to do with life after college?
The New York Times column “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness” written in March by Frank Bruni explores this issue.
“Midway through last year, I looked up the undergraduate alma maters of the chief executives of the top ten corporations in the Fortune 500,” Bruni stated in the article. “These were the schools: the University of Arkansas; the University of Texas; the University of California, Davis; the University of Nebraska; Auburn; Texas A&M; the General Motors Institute (now called Kettering University); the University of Kansas; the University of Missouri, St. Louis; and Dartmouth College.”
Not one Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. But shouldn’t they be the biggest and brightest, destined for greatness in this modern world? Not in all cases, or even in some.
“As long as you get the education you should be alright,” Murray said. “Some people may be looking at the name of the college when you’re applying for a job but in reality it shouldn’t really matter.”
This mantra of getting into the best college and you’ll do the best in the world seems to not necessarily be true, but many students go by it, strive by it and are crushed when applying to universities with low acceptance rates.
“If the school that you want to go to says they don’t want you, then it’s really sad,” McKenna said.
Even though maybe their first choice turned out to be not right and their second choice was a better fit, students still feel this rejection. It is all subjective in such a chaotic period of time that it seems many students feel the pressure from just being a part of it all.
To resolve the stress many students feel regarding the college admissions process, a variety of tactics can be employed. One idea deals with acknowledging the societal expectations of college acceptance and making a change regarding this issue.
That’s big, but it needs to happen for students not to feel so overwhelmed, pressured and hopeless that some even think about suicide, netherless go through with it, like the eight teens in Palo Alto.
“It’s more important to go to a school that’s right for you because you want to be successful in whatever you do and the school that you go to is going to help you do that,” Murray said.
Society has this thought that even if it is not the best fit, prestige is everything. In his research of this topic, Bruni found that most students don’t feel human during the process of college admittance, although most colleges they apply to could not be the right fit, so a rejection might be a blessing for the student, rather than a curse.
Parents are also part of the solution to this problem. In Bruni’s report, students find most of their stress and fear for college comes from their parents. This can come from comparing themselves to their child, or comparing their child to other students.
This could be because parents haven’t realized the growing challenges into getting into some prestigious colleges. Having irrational expectations can make students feel overwhelmed and pressured to be something they might not be able to achieve, which is an issue.
The last solution is simply to educate students. Let them know that it is okay to not get into the best universities, as long as the one they choose is right for them. Have teachers, counselors, and administration teach students these values, and let them know they aren’t alone, because the loneliness is what causes some students to resort to extremes.
“Teachers can help by making students aware of their own experiences in college and catering to the curriculum that best helps students get into college,” McKenna said.
Catering more to the student and allowing them to slowly get used to the college admissions process and just how college works in general will make students a lot less likely to feel what can be detrimental pressure and stress.
With college applications looming over seniors’ heads as they enter their final year of high school, many may think there will be little enjoyment. But, with changes in attitude from society, students and parents, students enjoy their final years in high school with a normal amount of stress and a decrease in pressure.