Let’s be honest here. Taking any sort of standardized test can be stressful. I can still remember the anxiety I felt before, during and after I took my SATs. I wasn’t one of those “naturally good test-takers” yet I was at the top of my class. It never seemed fair that a big part of me getting into a college was reliant on how well I did on one test. On top of that, you needed stellar recommendations, have loads of impressive extra-curricular activities and have that “special something” that would set you apart from the thousands of kids also applying. The whole thing felt like a never-ending nightmare.
It appears not much has changed since I was in school. The SATs are still very much an important factor. The whole culture around the admissions process is still as stressful and crazed as ever. With so much change happening around us, how can it be that this model remains the same? Has it evolved at all to meet the needs of new generations? Let’s take a look.
Recent events reveal that the culture has not changed but perhaps gotten a little worse.
The Varsity Blues Scandal is one of those events that highlight how competitive and ruthless the system has become. When you have parents participating in illegal activities to ensure their child gets into their school of choice, you know things have gotten worse. How desperate has the situation become? What sort of example is this setting? If this is the state of mind of the parents, how are the students feeling?
Clearly, there is too much emphasis on getting into elite schools/ programs. Yes, some studies show that those graduating from top schools on average make 20% more than those who don’t. But does that mean that a student can’t have a successful career if they went to say, a community college? Does that extra 20% in wages equate to a happier, healthier life? Will that elite college help a student thrive in school and after graduation? The Harvard class of 2023 had 43,330 students apply for 2,009 spots. Those are some scary odds. It’s easy to understand why parents took certain measures to better the odds. But what of those who don’t have the means to increase their chances of getting in? It seems you can’t win with this system.
Is there a healthier model?
This sentiment is echoed by David Coleman, the president of the College Board (which runs the SAT and AP exams). Earlier this year, he published an essay in the Atlantic which talks about how dysfunctional the college admission process can be. “The crazed pursuit of college admission helps no one thrive.” He goes to say that the whole system is not focusing on the key questions – “What is it that kids should be doing, not just to get into college but to succeed there and in life after graduation? What kind of education is worth the investment of time and effort?” Listen up parents, teachers, students – these are the questions you should be answering. It’s no guarantee that an elite school will give you an excellent education and life. There is no clear path to success. It’s all about what you do with what you have.
And what of the infamous SAT exam? Coleman himself writes that the SAT does not determine how smart or how capable a student is. It is merely a one-time reflection of the math, reading and writing skills attained by the student thus far. He goes on to clamor for a change of culture around the exam. “Low scores should never be a veto on a student’s life.” If only that were the case.
I can look back on my time as a student and will tell you I bought into the hype. I believed I needed to get into a top college to have the “dream life”. Yes, I thought that graduating from a certain school would get me to landing “the job” which ultimately would lead me to financial security and personal satisfaction. Has that been the case? Yes and no. I spent so much of my time doing all the things required of me to get into “the school” that I never bothered to consider if I liked any of the things I was doing. So yes, I got into “the school” and the “good-paying job” but I felt empty inside for a long time. I never discovered what excited me or what I had a fondness for. It took me 20 years to figure that out. What I’m trying to say is that you have a choice to make. The system is what it is. The odds are scary, there will be rule-breakers trying to game the system but ultimately you are the author of your fate.
So what do you do? You do what you feel is best for YOU. Go to the college you will get the best experience in. Maybe you want a smaller class size because you want to get to know your teachers and classmates. Perhaps you want programs that require you to engage in activities outside the classroom so you can apply what you learn. Perhaps when you went for a visit, you felt in your gut this was going to be “home” for you. Whatever it is, be open with yourself and your champions, who undoubtedly want what’s best for you. Remember that what matters most is how you play with the cards you are dealt with rather than the cards themselves.
Next on the College Admission series: How has the SAT changed and is there anything you can do to capitalize on the change?
Check our other blogs related to career advice here.