As a senior, the college application process is something that has been on my mind: mountains of supplements, activity lists, standardized test scores, interviews, essays and pressure. Some of the pressure is self-imposed and some is societally-imposed. There is pressure to take the hardest classes and get good grades in them all, to assume leadership positions, to achieve highly on arbitrary measurements of achievement (i.e. standardized tests), to become involved in one’s community, and — in essence — to become as “marketable” as possible to institutions of higher learning. As admission to college seemingly gets more competitive every year, students are starting to feel this pressure earlier and earlier. And as a result, high school can become merely a means to the end of college admission.
KO is a self-proclaimed “college-preparatory” school. However, increasingly, I think the line between preparing students for college and preparing students for the college application process is blurred. Of course, this problem is not at all unique to KO; rather, it is symptomatic of systemic issues in education. What problems arise when high school becomes a means to an end?
One is that students tend to place an undue amount of importance on their transcripts. We become curators, trying to demonstrate to some unknown admissions officer that we are intellectually curious and hardworking and whatnot. All are admirable attributes, of course, but the way in which we students are supposed to exhibit them is through a series of random letters on a sheet of paper.
There is an obvious disparity between grades and actual learning, but the college application process conflates the two, furthering the notion that the purpose of taking a class is to get a good grade in it. The ultimate impact of this over-emphasis is that students feel as if they have to succeed academically in every class they take. As a result, the system disincentivizes students from taking academic risks; instead of taking more difficult classes, students prefer an “easy A.”
Alternatively, I think other students are pressured into taking the “hardest level” of every class, even if they don’t want to or aren’t genuinely interested in that subject. Kids load up AP classes just to show colleges that they are taking the most rigorous classes. Taking on too many AP classes can cause an unhealthy amount of stress and can take time away from other activities. Thus, students are forced to choose between stress and showing colleges that they’re taking on a challenging course load.
Another problem that arises when high school becomes a stepping stone on the path to college is that students are corralled into pursuing activities based on that activity’s perceived prestige and not on students’ interest in it. I think students would be happier if they felt as if they could choose their extracurriculars of their own volition instead of feeling constrained by the pre-conceptions of some college admission officer.
On the Common Application, there are 10 activities slots. Though students technically don’t have to fill in all 10, they feel the pressure to demonstrate their involvement by doing just that. As such, they fill up their time with activities with the sole purpose to write in a box and describe their involvement in 150 characters.
I think we all have a tendency to take the present for granted, to be “future-oriented.” But this sort of approach to high school is dangerous. It creates students who value grades and perceived academic rigor over actual learning and who pursue activities to craft an optimal resumé not because they enjoy them. This sort of problem is evident at KO. My class received our college advisors in the winter of our junior year, but now, college advisors and students are paired up during students’ sophomore year. I’m not arguing that this change is a bad one, necessarily. I think it’s indicative of the pervasiveness of the effects of the college application process.
In closing, I would warn anyone reading this against viewing high school — especially KO — as merely a means to an end. Of course, KO helps prepare us for college and helps prepare us to get into college. But that shouldn’t be KO’s only or primary purpose. Enjoy the present and enjoy your time in it. Take advantage of the present, but not only because it will give you a better future. Education at any level should be an end in itself and not just a gate to something “greater.” With that, I’m going to end this editorial here. I have to go work on my college essays…