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The Race to University
It’s safe to say that during a time where competitiveness is key to college admissions, students and parents alike are beginning to feel the threat of what it takes to be accepted into their top-choice universities.
As of late there has been a surge in the number of college attendees, lending itself to a decrease in the acceptance rates within more competitive universities within the nation. An acceptance to a well-renowned school, such that of UCLA, means much more now than it did years before. The popular university recently set a record of receiving the highest number of applicants amongst other University of California (U.C.) schools— being the first to ever receive over 100,000 applications within their 2018 fall admissions)*.
Previous security of being an in-state student is dwindling too. To continue with the U.C. system as an example: the same year that UCLA received its record-breaking applicants number, the U.C. system decided to decrease the number of in-state admission slots they would offer. Thus for many teens looking to receive somewhat of an advantage due to their location, tensions increase for those who previously felt semi-secure in their chances of acceptance.
As the number of applicants begin to rise, high schoolers are feeling a trickle of tension as their classmates begin a relentless, peer-motivated struggle to keep their heads above currents that seem to run against them. Junior year, as most high schoolers are well aware, is one of the most crucial times of their academic lives. It is now where life beyond Friday Night Lights and club meetings holds itself to be a fast-approaching future; and for many, getting into the college of their choice continues to be more of a distant dream due to the nature of college admissions today.
Truth is, throughout universities with lower than average admission rates, having over an outstanding GPA average doesn’t phase the ordinary college admissions officer anymore. Student life is beginning to shape itself around a culture of competitiveness and ambition, in which countless individuals (especially those aiming towards a rigorous class schedule) are fighting to stand out amongst a herd of seemingly carbon copies. Therefore, this contributed to the rise of yet another way to prove one’s worth: impressive test scores. Thus, as more students begin to view SAT/ACT prep as the new norm; accompanying them are similarly overachieving parents who are willing to spend upwards to thousands of dollars to make sure their child has the upper hand.
While it is true that this self-constructed, educational atmosphere is not ubiquitous throughout all high schools in the nation, it is false to say that students knowledgeable of the college admissions process do not feel the rising heat of competition. The nature of this mentality seemingly rises out of the student population itself; and the more competitive one’s high school is, the more likely this social pressure ricochets off of one goal-focused teen to another. However, as innumerable students all over the country aim towards top-tiered universities to fit their likings, they also have to acknowledge the swelling number of students who are similarly partaking in the same dreams. Consequently, through efforts to avoid being looked over, many students come to discover that a college acceptance not only relies on the question of whether they strive as excelling students, but if they could also contend as strong individuals.
Here lies the struggle that a majority of high school students face today: as college admissions continue to be an enigma to the public (especially to those without the luxury of hiring private college tutors), many prepare for the worst by arming themselves with Advanced Placement courses and high test scores. According to the CollegeBoard**, “2.7 million students [were] expected to take nearly 5 million AP Exams in May [of 2017].” While over the last decade alone, the number of public school students taking AP classes nearly doubled in size — not to mention the expansion of several subjects to include AP and Honors levels. As a result, as the number of overqualified, potential attendees begin to rise, so does the number of expectations colleges have in their prospective freshmen.
A recent trend within public universities with smaller admission rates (such as UC Berkeley or UCLA), are the beginnings of a more holistic approach to how they narrow down future attendees. To compensate for the rising level of venerable resumés, forgotten are the days where GPAs and SAT/ACT scores set one another apart. Though scores still play an important role within the process and can sometimes be the ultimate decider between similar applications, most colleges now stress the necessity of a booming social life outside of school that not only demonstrates one’s exclusive talents, but what they have to offer to the campus itself should they pass the admissions process.
Volunteer work, athletics, extracurriculars, leadership accomplishments, or social recognitions are now beginning their stretch into the limelight more than ever. Only having a prominent school career is now, for lack of a better term, simply not substantial enough for colleges to cling onto. As a result of this college-fueled, frantic search for the finest “well-rounded” student to ever walk through campus doors (one who is uniquely academically outstanding, a great test taker, and a crucial extension of their community), this leaves students with above-average GPAs settling for the waitlist, and others filled with dejected questions about the extent one has to go through to be accepted.
Julia, a current high school junior, expresses her fears about the realities of college acceptances today, as “its difficult to gauge your chances of getting [accepted]... because of the variety of students who are getting into the top universities are so wide… even the best students may not be getting into the colleges of their choice.” Since freshman year, Julia supported herself with a strong GPA history and varsity athletic recognition, yet even this seems not enough counter the glowing tide of applications from those “who hold themselves to a higher standard, with higher academics.” Due to the cutthroat nature of modern college applicants — especially amongst top universities where she’s planning to attend— the reality of the “college situation” today is the overwhelming fear of competing against others with the same application, the same background, while all applying to the same schools.
Nevertheless, where does this leave students who are physically, or financially unable to achieve their class or test score potential? Copious schools do not offer a wide range of AP courses, while many others might not offer any at all. Individual characteristics which helps one stand out amongst their peers are often based on financial capabilities of each family as well. Many families are not able to afford the extra costs that accompanies extracurriculars and athletics; while other students work part-time to help support their family. The exact moment this unbalanced system fails is not hard to predict. Given the opportunity to receive the mere chance of building an appealing resumé for top universities is still a game of monopoly— one built upon the stark truth that those lucky enough to receive options such as private tutoring, test prep, or the availability of harder classes already have a head start towards the race to college.
As a result, many students look towards community college, or the option of attending a lesser competitive school before transfering to the university of their choice. Transfer acceptance rates are usually much higher than those coming straight from high school, thus offering an easier, more accommodative route to get accepted into one’s dream universities.
Although many prefer going straight to their top universities straight from high school, this might not be realistic for some. A slight detour to a community college might even prove to be more substantial in several cases when such matters as location and its potential financial savings are taken into account by those who would have a hard time paying off student loans otherwise. Natasha, another present junior, is considering her possibilities after high school. She previously aimed towards UCSD for a degree in Marketing, however due to the possibility of her GPA and test scores not being up to par with the usual acceptance demands of her choice university, she’s now open to the option of attending community college for two years before transferring over. Even though this was not her “ideal option,” Natasha is quite optimistic about her life plans, stating that “a community college doesn’t discourage [her] from what [she] ultimately would major in, nor change her future career in any way.”
Though it is true that college admission realities differ amongst its applicants, an undeniable truth still relies within the fact that now more than ever, that clichéd saying of “survival of the fittest,” is slowly coming alive and creeping onto campuses across the country. As future university-bound students are nearing the end of their four years, the future still remains unknown for the majority. Though personal statements and individual history may sprinkle in the much needed touch of personality that comes with black and white resumés, the challenge still lies in getting one’s application to be the shining star that rises up from the hodgepodge of thousands.
* Vazquez, Ricardo. “UCLA Breaks Applications Record, Sees Steep Surge in California
Applicants.” UCLA Newsroom, UCLA All Rights Reserved, 14 Dec. 2017
** “2.7 Million Students Expected to Take Nearly 5 Million AP Exams in May.” The College
Board - College Admissions SAT - University & College Search Tool, The College Board
16 May 2017