The Problem with College Applications

By Coco Rohatyn ’21

To what lengths do students go to build an appealing application? (Photo Credit: Niche)
To what lengths do students go to build an appealing application? (Photo Credit: Niche)

When the 2018 college scandal broke, many students, myself included, expressed contempt for the families and children involved. The actions of the families were unethical and unlawful, and they made me reflect on the ways in which we, as students, present ourselves in a misconstrued way to colleges.


The pressure of getting into college is astronomical; it feels as though you will be judged for the rest of your life based on which school you attend. The name recognition and selectivity of certain universities give many students the manic determination to do anything to get into their top choice. In the most extreme cases, we’ve seen Lori Laughlin photoshopping her children's bodies onto crew boats, which many students were quick to condemn, but each of us participates in a system whereby we tell little white lies on our extracurricular supplements.


The fibs can start small: one hour of community service a week can slowly change into five, and tutoring a sibling in math can read as peer tutoring younger students. Trends begin to emerge as we approach senior year, the time we must organize our extracurriculars on the Common App so they comprehensively create a concerto that tells the “narratives” of us as scholars and citizens. Students who enjoy math and science feel inclined to participate in engineering camps, intern at a hospital, and be a member of the mathletes club. Students who resonate with the “literary nerd” narrative must attend summer writing workshops, edit the school newspaper, and teach middle schoolers about poetry.


There is an unrelenting pressure to build an appealing narrative, whether it be centered around the arts, sciences, entrepreneurship, or another field. The pressure grows more menacing each year, driving some into a place of fear and insecurity that when we present ourselves, we will not be alluring enough to admissions officers.

Not only must we deal with this self-rejection as malleable teenagers, but our parents, school guidance counselors, and peers are also acutely aware of this. No parent wants to see his or her child be in pain or fail, so many parents take the college process into their own hands, carefully preparing a meal out of the student. The appetizer is an outside-of-school charity of which their child sits on the board, the main course is a glamorized service trip to Fiji, and the dessert is a glimpse at how artistic the child is; their oil on canvas has been purchased—never mind the fact that the parent is their sole customer.


While parents are vehemently trying to present the most impressive, often overtly embellished versions of their children, children themselves are equally as culpable. When flipping through past yearbooks, I’ve always noticed certain trends. Like how there is a stark linear trend that directly relates being a high school junior to the number of club pictures a student is in. Nearly every year, ten to fifteen new clubs emerge—always ironically established by juniors. For example, during my freshman year, a senior convinced me to join her club. She advertised “Film Club” as a place where movie aficionados could convene and dissect our favorite scenes, discuss cinematography, and Hollywood’s shortcomings. Instead, I found myself sitting in a classroom watching Lady Bird while the two heads of the club gossipped in the back, and the other club attendees marveled over Timothée Chalamet’s hair.


Junior and senior year force us to grapple with existential questions, ones that our parents likely have yet to answer: who am I, and what is my purpose in my community? These questions are intimidating enough to scare a grown-up, so it would be outlandish to think that a teenager could tackle these matters.

Our ability to sculpt ourselves to answer these questions is exactly what the college process aims to expose. Insecurity drives us all into different crevices; some cry and are tinged with feelings of worthlessness, while others begin meticulously constructing their perfect-on-paper application, much of which is drawn from the imagination. Many of us feel not only familial pressure to create our idyllic application but also peer pressure. If everyone is embellishing his or her accomplishments, it would be a disadvantage not to do the same. In order to present the raw versions of ourselves to colleges, there must be a pact among school guidance counselors and students alike: no more overselling ourselves as valuable commodities—assets to any university who find cures for rare cancers, kickstart several non-profit organizations, and maintain unblemished report cards for four years, all while volunteering at seven animal shelters and ending world hunger. How much longer can we pick and choose what parts of ourselves are illuminated for the colleges to see?