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College Admissions Process Creates Competition and Chronic Stress

The college admissions process is known for the stress and anxiety it places on students. Many people, especially parents, regard it as a determinant of future success. Frank Bruni, author of “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” disagrees with this idea, describing how our culture has become “brand-obsessed.” He explains how many view this process as setting “the whole trajectory” for students’ lives. He said, “it’s so untrue and it’s the source of so much unnecessary anxiety.”

Students, especially high school juniors and seniors, experience tremendous levels of stress. A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association found that on average, teens reported their stress level as a 5.8 on a 10- point scale, compared with 5.1 for adults. Furthermore, according to the survey, “many American teens report experiencing stress at unhealthy levels, appear uncertain in their stress management techniques…and report that stress is having an impact on their performance at home, work, and school.”

A student has an individual appointment with college counselor Mai Lai Nguyen. Photo Credit: Mitra Pezeshki/M-A Chronicle

A 2015 study by New York University highlights that some youth may even experience chronic stress so severe that it impedes their ability to succeed academically, impacts their mental health, and can lead to risky behavior. “School, homework, extracurricular activities, sleep, repeat— that’s what it can be for some of these students,” stated Noelle Leonard, PhD, a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing.

Top-tier universities are increasingly difficult to get into, and our culture is adapting to this competitive climate. In 2018, Stanford University accepted only 4.3% of its applicants—a number that reflects an expectation of not only academic success, but impressive extracurriculars and engaging essays. High schools, especially in Silicon Valley, have responded by providing more difficult classes— like Advanced Placement (AP)— which can require hours of homework a night. As a result, students may feel obligated to take as many AP courses as they can to obtain an edge over their peers.

Erica Fischer, an M-A senior, went on on a service trip this past summer to the border with Tijuana, Mexico. During a discussion about their experiences, students were asking “in-depth questions” about the communities they were helping, the reasons for poverty in the area and the impact they hoped to create. It became obvious, however, that some students were there not to serve, but in fact to “show colleges that [they were] a good person”— evident when one student raised his hand and asked how the trip would look on college applications.

The stressful process is impacting students on our campus, too. Misha Kulshresta, a senior at M-A, described the college application process as “horribly complicated.” Senior Oron Estes agreed, referencing the struggle of managing both school and college applications: “It’s hard to focus on both because we don’t know which one is more important. Sometimes, we have so much work to do […] that it feels hopeless.”

Aside from competition with peers and pressure from parents, the Internet can be an added source of stress. Websites such as College Confidential advertise themselves as public forums for sharing advice on the college application process, but have become infamous for adding more stress instead of relieving it. This added stress is exemplified by “chance” threads, in which students share their statistics and extracurriculars to have others predict their chances of being accepted to certain universities.

Posters from colleges around the country decorate the walls of the CCC. Photo Credit: Lucida Fu/M-A Chronicle.

Aarthi Popat, who graduated from M-A in 2017 and is now a sophomore at Stanford University, also believes that the application process is unnecessarily competitive and stressful. During her admissions journey, she “tried to stay away from college-admissions sites… but occasionally browsed College Confidential and found that there was a strong emphasis on comparison and competition on an even broader scale.”

She explained that looking at these sites “always discouraged [her], and it was easy to get caught comparing achievements to [those of] the students who posted on the site.” After going through the process, she now understands how students comparing themselves to others reduces their ability to “focus on themselves and celebrate their own successes. [These] sites offer a venue for unhealthy competition that can lead to even more stress.”

M-A college counselor Brad Ward reaffirmed this idea: “There’s a lot of stress around this process which is totally understandable…. [but] I know in the end, students have [college] choices and it works out; they get to [a] college that maybe they hadn’t heard of when they were a junior and all of a sudden they love that college. They have tons of friends and are like, ‘I had no idea it could be this good.’”

If you or someone you know is feeling stressed out about the college process, take Ward’s advice that “it’s going to work out.” More often than not, comparison leads to unhealthy stress and can overpower confidence about individual accomplishments. Focus on yourself! If you are feeling stuck or anxious, don’t hesitate to reach out to the college counselors here at M-A or simply talk to a friend about how you are feeling. The College and Career Center is home to two supportive counselors and offers many resources, such as individual appointments (check out the article out to get more information!). As Ward put it, “We love what we do…we’re here to help you.”

Further Resources:

  • Text TALK to 741741 for 24/7 anonymous free counseling
  • Mentalhealth.gov for mental health programs, resources, studies and articles to help
  • The CCC is located off of Pride Hall. (If you don’t know where it is, you can always access it through the Counselors’ Office).

For more information about support resources M-A has for students (including Star Vista etc.), click here

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