U.S. News


America’s Broken College Admissions System

More than 4 out of 5 Americans think that the college admissions process is unfair, and they have good reason to believe so. If there’s anything that the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal (and its subsequent documentary) revealed, it’s that the college admissions process is far from equitable and tremendously stress-inducing for teenagers. Familial wealth plays a huge factor in determining the amount of support a student gets: from being able to afford college counselors and private tutors all the way to more extreme actions such as using bribery to be accepted into colleges. Taking these factors into account, it is evident that students from low-income households are disadvantaged on a multitude of levels, only adding to the stress that is already present for all students when college application season rolls around.

Not only is the college admissions process emotionally and mentally exhausting for students across America, but it also causes extremely high-stress levels. In fact, 66% of high school students reported “often or always” feeling worried about getting accepted to attend their chosen college, with the stress levels of modern-day teenagers far exceeding those of their adult counterparts.

One pivotal component of this stress is a factor that’s important for any student hoping to make it into a selective college: test scores. From Advanced Placement exams to standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, students are heavily scrutinized based on what they score on test day. Standardized results can be helpful for colleges considering a multitude of factors when admitting students, especially when schools have different grading systems. However, hyperfixation of these individual scores can be detrimental to the mental health of already-overloaded high school students.

To make matters worse, wealthy students are able to afford expensive college-prep classes and resources, putting even more pressure on students coming from lower-income backgrounds. The impact of this is clear: Inside Higher Ed finds that there are significant SAT performance gaps between students based on their household income. The lowest average scores on all three sections of the SAT exam come from students whose families make less than $20,000 in yearly income, whereas the highest average scores come from students from families with over $200,000 in yearly income.

Aside from test scores, colleges take a close look at the extracurricular activities of each applicant, admitting only those who demonstrate excellence and passion. Leadership positions are treasured, and so are rare opportunities like internships and summer programs. However, at a concerningly rapid rate, high school students get involved in as many activities as possible, believing that spreading themselves thin is the only way that they can get into college. Being involved in activities solely for the purpose of college applications takes a toll on students; they’re often filling their time with activities that they don’t even enjoy while consequently jeopardizing their grades, social lives, and mental health. With an ever-growing “arms race” mentality, each generation of high school students increasingly attempt to one-up their peers, constantly adding onto their workloads in order to appear more impressive than their classmates in front of colleges.

This apparent growth in competitiveness has a cause: 30 years ago, only about half of all high school graduates were applying to college. Today, almost two-thirds of all high school graduates apply to college. For this reason, the standards required for a student to be admitted to a top university are steadily increasing, thus increasing the pressure placed on high school students to stand out.

As expected, students who “stand out” to top colleges tend to be from affluent backgrounds, a direct reflection of how their increased access to resources assists their chances of acceptance. In fact, students from families in the top 1 percent are a staggering 77 times more likely to be admitted to an Ivy League school than students from families who make less than $30,000 in yearly income.

Overall, the college admissions system is deeply tainted with inequality as well as a key cause of exceptionally high-stress levels in teenagers across America, leaving a massive mark on the lives of our country’s youth. Although colleges provide a steady source of motivation for high school students to continue working towards their potentials, this motivation is matched with insurmountable pressure, placing a heavy burden upon the backs of teenagers. The only way for this issue to be solved is by destigmatizing state schools and community colleges, two options that are far too often viewed as inferior to attending a prestigious university. Without the pressure of making it into a top college such as Princeton or Harvard, students would have the ability to focus more on having fun throughout their high school years, doing activities they actually enjoy, and prioritizing their mental health.