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OnCOLLEGEy: Studying the Cancerous Culture Surrounding College

Posted 04/23/2019 by Ava Ward

Mervielle Mugisha covers his face in anguish at the mere mention of college applications. photo by Ava Ward

Thomas Jefferson High School students are suffering from the stress of college admissions.

College is implanted into the mind of the common high schooler the moment they begin their freshman year. Flyers from various universities bespeckle notice boards in the hallways; clubs attract members by stressing admission boards’ appreciation of extra-curriculars; SAT practice is offered weekly to help prepare for the infamous test that will determine ‘college readiness.’ If if a student has not heard a teacher mention college, they have not been coming to school. A college degree can serve as a ticket to success. It is difficult to find a profession in the quaternary sector of the economy without at least a bachelor’s degree. Pursuing a degree is an excellent way to ensure job security and further one’s education in an area of interest. However, for many students, gaining admission to elite institutions of higher learning has become an anxiety-ridden, confidence-crushing process.

“I would say I have felt pressure to get into a good college since middle school,” confessed senior Kennedy Perry. “I think that the atmosphere around getting into college is not conducive to student development because it creates a stressful environment in which students are concerned with the wrong things to be successful.” Having endured college application season, Perry found the process to be highly distressing. It became difficult to distinguish between the post-secondary goals impelled by society and those that were truly her own. “The hardest part of the college application process for me was separating what everyone said was best for me and what I knew was best for me.” Perry’s peer, senior Ciara O’Neil, also felt the pressure when composing applications, but conceded that the stress of the task was not entirely uncalled for. “In some aspects, stress can help students with motivation during high school. However, it can also cause a lot of mental distress,” O’Neill debated. “I do not think there are any benefits to the current college application system. I think that it is very selective, financially detrimental, and substandard in comparison to the processes of other countries.” The sheer mass of product O’Neil had to generate for every university—having to create several unique essays and completing four different application platforms—made the affair quite tedious. “I would love to change that into one concise application,” she lamented.

The madness each year’s seniors endure has not escaped the attention of TJ’s counselors. “There is a lot of pressure on our students to get into top schools,” confirmed counselor Maggie Kennedy. She referenced the recent scandals wherein wealthy families used fat sums of cash to bribe their kids’ way into elite colleges. Gaining entrance to a good university has become less about getting a quality education and more about achieving a certain social status. “I think a lot of stress is placed on students by their families and by our society and culture at large,” theorized Kennedy. “There is the idea that one decision is going to affect your entire life, but it does not have to be a final decision. One school is not going to influence your whole future permanently.” She hopes that her students will focus more on if a certain college is right for them rather than if they are right for the college.

Several students complain that the stress of getting into college becomes encapsulated into one hair-tearing period of senior year when it would be dispersed evenly with the right preparations. “Our school starts way too late in preparing students for applying and thinking about college,” criticized senior Ryan Cecil. “I didn’t even understand the whole process until the first month of senior year. At that point, it’s almost too late.” Crucial aspects of college applications, such as extracurriculars, require years of honing. Joining five clubs one week before filling out an application is useless in the eyes of an admission board. If students were made aware of the significance of a well-balanced resume earlier in their academic career, they may not face cramming four years of activities into one semester. Additionally, Cecil suggested that English curriculums could broaden their coverage to include writing styles conducive to priming applications. “High school classes usually emphasize the ability to write in a scholarly manner that will help you in standardized tests, but the biggest challenge for other students and myself was learning how to write about yourself in a way that tells a story and shows personal growth,” noted Cecil. Being able to write in a way that shows oneself in a positive light is a skill that can be used beyond getting into college; job applications, pay-raise requests, and presentations all demand the art of persuasion. Changing school curriculums could help move the college application process from an anxiety-ridden event to an exciting time for planning one’s future.

Yet another poisonous part of college culture is the stereotypes attached to different types of universities. Community colleges are scorned for being too elementary while Ivy leagues are typecast as being solely for the rich. “There is still a stigma around community college. Really, some of the most successful people have gone to community college,” Kennedy debunked. “People have started at community college and transferred to Ivy league schools.” Kennedy believes that the stigma is starting to disappear, but realizes that there is a long way to go before high schoolers can brush away their biases when making post-secondary decisions. “Community colleges are a great, affordable option for many students to get a start.” Perry had similar views on the stereotypes in student culture. She shared, “From my experience, community colleges are generally looked down upon, and state colleges are seen as party schools.” O’Neil reasoned, “I think that some people may have preconceived notions about types of colleges because of the lack of education surrounding them.” If teens are taught that community colleges can foster success and that Ivy leagues have policies against socioeconomic discrimination, they may be prevented from limiting their options by their own prejudice.

A common qualm of high schoolers is the authority held by the Scholastic Aptitude Test. However, students and counselors agree that test scores are not the only way to show skill. “I do not think that college admissions weigh your ACT or SAT score as high as many would think,” O’Neil assured. “Your grades, extracurricular activities, work, and volunteer experiences are factored in.” Kennedy disclosed. She referenced recent studies that show the biggest indicator of one’s success is their GPA, not their test score. “Some students are not as good at taking tests as others. It does not measure your worth as a person,” the counselor exhorted. Though striving for success on the SAT is a good practice, too much anxiety around the subject can ultimately have adverse effects on performance.

Though the college admission structure is undoubtedly faulted, it is best not to buck the system entirely. “There are good programs for specific majors that can definitely help students in their future,” reasoned Kennedy. She is confident that striving to get into a top university is an excellent goal, as long as one does not let a negative outcome harm their mental state. O’Neil pointed out that the process, though unpleasant, is not completely inutile. “The general stress and pressure around getting into college is not necessarily detrimental to student development because, in some aspects, it can help students with motivation during high school.” All teenagers want to learn, but the trials of adolescence can make academic performance appear quite uninspiring. The notion that college admission boards will be analyzing every grade and score garnered in high school often serves as the final push for students to finish their assignments.

Conducive to development or not, the college admission system is not likely to undergo any revolutionary changes any time soon. For now, students and staff agree, it is best to solicit support during trying times. “I really recommend that students reach out and talk to their family and friends in their social circles to help with the stress,” implored Kennedy. Spartans are fortunate enough to have a plethora of resources at hand for making difficult post-secondary decisions. “Luckily, at TJ, we have a lot of support in the future center to help mitigate challenges,” informed Perry. If the stress begins to feel insurmountable, Natalie Koncz, TJ’s school psychologist, is always available to talk in room 114. Outside of school, students can pay a visit to,, and for test prep, university particulars, and financial aid respectively. Planning for the future is a demanding responsibility, but by taking advantage of the wonderful resources available, teens can turn the insurmountable process into an opportunity for growth.