Content warning: this article contains references to suicide. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.
On April 2, 2022, MIT announced that it was bringing back standardized testing requirements for the class of 2023, amid massive waves of its peer institutions dropping them. This decision once again raised the issue of equity in the college admissions process. While the SAT and ACT have been criticized as “wealth tests” — students with more money generally have more resources to perform well — MIT actually cited the tests’ ability to display excellence in spite of socioeconomic status as a main reason for reinstating the requirement, writing that it “help[s MIT] identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT.” But all this debate over the institutional use of standardized testing raises a broader question about the college admissions process that seems to get lost on the adults involved: how does this all make the students feel?
For a high-achieving high school student, getting into your “dream college” seems like exactly that — just a dream. The class of 2025 faced a Stanford with a record-low 3.95% acceptance rate. Harvard, Yale and MIT all had similar single-digit admissions rates, and these figures are falling fast at colleges and universities across the U.S. A perfect SAT or ACT score and stellar extracurriculars only help edge an applicant’s foot into the door of a college admissions office. And notwithstanding the extremely low chance of getting into these highly selective schools, the methods these colleges and universities use to admit students routinely tell students that their self-worth is defined by their college acceptances. Take the first question on the Common App: “Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” At its core this question asks students to exploit the most meaningful aspect of their identity for the hope of a college acceptance. These types of essay questions are typical of “holistic admissions,” which the College Board defines as a process of evaluating an applicant based on “Mission alignment, … their likely ability to succeed … their ability to enhance the educational experiences of their peers … Consideration of multiple, often intersecting, factors — academic, nonacademic, and contextual — that, in combination, uniquely define and reflect accomplishments and potential contributions of each applicant in light of his or her background and circumstances.”
In theory, this practice would allow students to succeed based on their authenticity as an applicant regardless of socioeconomic background. Instead, students mold their very being into an image of an applicant they think will appeal to admissions officers — undermining this goal of authenticity while simultaneously forcing students to exploit themselves in the hope of a college acceptance. And, as Stanford lecturer and Challenge Success co-founder Denise Pope said, “some of these kids have had college on the brain since sixth or seventh grade or even earlier.” When at 10 or 11 years old one already believes that they have got to start making themselves into a competitive college applicant, the line between oneself and oneself as it appears to colleges becomes increasingly blurred. Getting rejected from your dream college, far from being a normal rejection, feels like a rejection of your very being, your heart and soul that you put into your application. Each component of the college process adds to the stress and anxiety students feel, especially among students looking for a coveted spot at a top 10 school. And note — since the pandemic, student anxiety has only gone up.
In many exceptionally wealthy communities around the US — and especially the greater Stanford area — this anxiety and depression manifests itself in dark ways. Growing up in the Bay Area, it feels as though I’ve been acquainted with the negative impacts the college admissions process has on a student’s psyche my whole life. Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic article “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” which examines the suicide clusters of 2009-2010 and 2014-2015 in the greater Palo Alto area, came out when I was in eighth grade. It exposed the life-or-death bend that the competitive high school culture and the college admissions process can have. Rosin defines a “suicide cluster” as “multiple deaths in close succession and proximity.” Palo Alto is an exceptional case: “the 10-year suicide rate … is between four and five times the national average” at Palo Alto high schools. In the 2014-2015 school year alone, Palo Alto saw two youth suicide clusters — for context, in the US there are about five a year. The CDC conducted an investigation into the suicide epidemic in Palo Alto after that cluster and found that the city had the largest youth suicide rate in the country, with 14.1 per 100,000 residents committing suicide between 2003-2015. After the 2009-2010 case, professionals from Stanford and the Bay Area helped train staff and created a “toolkit” to prevent an echo cluster — a second cluster in the same location within a decade. Echo clusters are extraordinarily rare, so the two Silicon Valley clusters suggest that the band-aid solution of a “toolkit” won’t cut it — the culture has to change.
Rosin argues that, when a high school consistently ranks nationally in terms of STEM programs, theater and arts programs, academics at large — not to mention the massive success of neighbors such as Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Allen or Elon Musk — excellence always seems out of reach. Part of this pressure stems from the economic environment in which these students exist. Professor Suniya Luther conducted a study that concluded that “rich middle- and high-school kids … show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average … They report clinically significant depression or anxiety … at a rate two to three times the national average.” These stressors seem to stem from the pressure to excel academically and extracurricularly to ultimately “make a lot of money.” Many talk about the pressure parents put on their children to succeed, but — perhaps as an extension of their parents’ beliefs or some conviction of their own — other students apply this pressure to each other, too. This competitive culture creates a space in which it’s fine for students to brag about how late they stay up doing homework, lie about their test scores or humble brag about their summers abroad — creating a never-ending cycle of stress.
While a lot can be said to the importance of creating a home environment in which students don’t feel this enormous pressure to succeed from their parents, the onus ultimately falls on all institutions to meaningfully improve the mental state of college applicants across America. Competitive high schools need to internally examine the types of behavior they promote and award — namely, asking students to stay up all night studying and working on college-level assignments starting at age 14 while simultaneously being star athletes and artists. And colleges need to stop demanding this profile from applicants to even get their name on the table. In the rush to label themselves as “prestigious,” “highly selective” and “nationally ranked,” these institutions have failed to actually uplift the population that relies on them the most: students.