We have a dream. Or rather, we had a dream: to enter the ivy-lined gates of a top university. From when we first received our high school acceptance letters in eighth grade, we expected Stuyvesant to be the bus on the road to a top-tier college. And every year, we see a transformation of each class, from naïve, exuberant freshmen, to cynical, self-doubting seniors with lowered expectations. We eventually learn, or are forced to learn, the complex and unfair procedures of the college process.
We entered as valedictorians, salutatorians, and students with A+ averages. School was easy for us. Tests were easy for us. Applying to college will be easy for us. We came in with an idea of where we want to go, a choice influenced by our parents, our peers, and the rankings found online and in newspapers. The rigorous Stuyvesant curriculum and its outstanding reputation only helped boost our confidence.
We assume we have the process all figured out: good grades, extracurricular activities, leadership positions, high standardized test scores, and recommendations from teachers and counselors who know and love us.
So convinced are we in our ability to stay on the path we’ve determined for ourselves that the difficulties of the process doesn’t really hit until perhaps it is too late.
Come second term junior year, we are introduced, for the first time, to the people and the department that will help us make those life-changing decisions—the college counselors and college office. Over the course of the next five months, the college process is explained to us in greater depth, via a 40-minute mass lecture, and a 20-minute interview with a college counselor. But with significantly fewer spots than the number of seniors, primarily due the minuscule ratio of college counselor to seniors (3:812 for this year’s graduating class), not everyone can get the attention that he or she deserves. Parents and students generally question how a person in charge of around 271 students can truly guide each one through the college process.
Not only that, but the statistics that have always been in our favor now seem to be mocking us. Suddenly, our averages are just a point too low, our test grades a few percentiles short of the norm—the Stuyvesant norm that is. The rigorous curriculum that was supposed to prepare us for our dream college is now preventing us from entering it. The untouchable reputation now places us in direct competition with our peers—all of those middle school valedictorians, salutatorians, and kids with A+ averages.
The summer after junior year, we notice when the college office posts the results of all the students, anonymously, who applied to each college, along with his or her departmental GPA and SAT scores, but gives no other information about the person. Students desperately looking for patterns, sure indicators of acceptance, and are continually disappointed, taking solace only in the lone row of green in the sea of red and black. The numbers alone mystify us, but we are confused even more by the non-quantifiable aspects of our application, such as extracurricular activities, leadership positions, and volunteer hours.
Then begins senior year. With words like “safety,” “target,” and “reach” swirling around our brains but no concrete ideas of where to go (of course by now, it’s been established that Ivies are totally overrated), we start the college process anew. Students are again given two additional mass lectures, which are meant to emphasize the crucial deadlines for certain parts of the college application, and a one-on-one interview with their college counselor, meant to help us create a finalized list of colleges to apply to. But the small number of college counselors is unable to interview the senior class efficiently and in a timely manor. With less than two weeks before Early Action and Early Decision applications are due, interviewing the remaining seniors will serve no purpose besides reassuring a college counselor that he or she did the job, since it would be very impractical to expect a student to wait to decide on a college until it is so late.
Perhaps if we weren’t so emotionally attached to these colleges, these obstacles wouldn’t seem as frustrating. But somehow we’ve grown obsessed with the idea of rankings and have come to associate our success in high school with the quality of our college—this final trophy of our hard work at Stuy. We develop that strange dynamic of outwardly criticizing Ivies and inwardly yearning to attend one.
The solutions to simplifying the college process are as ambiguous as those elusive college rankings. The easiest answer is to differentiate between college and self-worth, something that would require a drastic change in mindset for students. If we didn’t believe in those often misguided and inaccurate rankings, all these obstacles would simply be wrinkles in the application process. However, changing our attitudes, especially ideas deeply ingrained by our upbringing, and perpetuated by peers and the media alike, is extremely difficult to do. So the best defense would be foresight: understanding of the limitations of college counseling, accepting the fierce competition, and tolerating the opaque college acceptance guidelines. We can still have a dream, but it should be grounded in realism and an accurate understanding of the limitations of the college process.