National rank, career prospects, and most importantly, prestige. These three core tenets summarize the appeal of top universities in the United States and are fervently on the mind of parents and future college students.
What's the big deal with these schools? For one, they are the most selective and prestigious colleges in the country and often ranked highest in the world. They attract the brightest students and provide resources to entice the highest-paying companies to employ their graduates.
For many families, getting their child accepted to one of these schools would be a pinnacle of success for their families, and a beacon of hope for economic and social prosperity in the future.
In recent years, a far greater emphasis has been put on high school students to focus on their GPAs and test scores while elevating their extracurricular involvement to a level that couldn’t have been expected of past generations.
In many schools across the US, students are making college lists and scouting potential program options as early as freshman year, with many high schools across the country adding college admission and preparatory courses and programs that are required for high school students of all ages.
This can lead to toxic levels of competition between friends and destroy relationships between high achieving students. Much of this competition stems from the fact that certain prestigious institutions typically only accept a tiny number of students from most US high schools, if any at all. The more students that apply to a particular institution, the less likely it is that one might get accepted.
Acceptance rates in various top institutions have an incredible level of variance. Currently, the top school in the United States, Princeton University, has an acceptance rate of around 6%. On the other end of the top 50, schools such as George Washington University have an acceptance rate somewhere around the mid-30s.
Still, it is unlikely that the average student would get accepted to any of these institutions with acceptance rates like these.
In my city of Boston, the top schools are Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Boston College. All of these are ranked in the top 50 universities in the country and have had increasingly selective acceptance rates over the last few decades.
Boston University, the college that I attend, had an acceptance rate in the mid-40s only a few decades ago. Today, students face an acceptance rate of around 13%.
A drop in acceptance rates often leads to higher rankings and more prestige, so naturally, every time acceptance rates are chipped away, the bar is slightly raised for high school students to impress admissions panels.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools such as my own instituted a test-optional policy. These policies lowered the barriers for entry amongst large populations of high school students that never had the chance to take a college-level standardized test such as the ACT or SAT due to Covid circumstances or school closures.
In doing so however, a new burden arose. Because students did not have to submit testing along with the rest of their applications, an astronomical number of students began submitting applications, far greater amounts than the university expected.
According to the school’s newspaper BU Today, BU totaled over 80,000 applications for a class of around 4000. You do the math.
Many sources in the field of higher education say that this level of selectivity will eventually falter and return to usual admissions numbers. Others, such as experts from Command Education, fear that these changes may be here to stay.
Effectively, Covid helped foster a toxic college culture where students were expected to apply to an exorbitantly high number of schools for fear of not getting accepted anywhere. The problem is this application-loop only reinforces itself as more and more students give in to applying everywhere.
When I was in high school, the average number of colleges applied to was 7 to 10. I applied to 12. According to Christopher Rim, founder, and CEO of Command Education in New York, the average number of schools that high school students have applied to jumped between an astounding 15 and 25. Many students now hoping to strike luck at one of the top 50 institutions simply apply to all 50.
Normalizing this potentially detrimental behavior could prove to foster unhealthy competition and stress in a vulnerable stage of teenage life. High School should be a time for learning and relationship building; a time to foster growth of your social skills and enjoy your last few years at home for many students. Essentially, let's work to end these nominal contests and unnecessary stressors on these children, not worsen these unhealthy habits further.