To a college-bound high school senior there is no set of words more ominous than “To view your decision update click here.” In fact, seeing those words appear after refreshing the page 500 times likely sends a more intense tremor of fear down a teenager’s spine than they’ve ever previously experienced. But why is this moment quite so significant? Why do thousands of teenagers across the nation anxiously await those fated days at the end of May when colleges release their admissions decisions?
As an 18-year-old who just went through the college process, I am not sure I know the answers to these questions. But, what I do know is that somehow there has been a dramatic shift in the nature and intensity of the college process from my parent’s generation to my own. Even high achieving students 30 or so years ago often viewed college admissions more as a stepping stone to the next phase of their lives than the culmination of their life’s work. Today, however, it is seen by many of my peers as a test of self-worth. Rejection from a dream school has become equated with a depletion of personal value. Simultaneously, this hyper-concern about admissions has led students on a national level to increase the number of schools they apply to. I, for example, so deeply feared rejection that I attempted to shield myself from it by applying to 18 colleges and universities. This increase in the number of schools each student applies to causes each university to receive more applications and thus reject a higher number of students. These rejections, in turn, increase stress and fear for students and cause this cycle to repeat and intensify.
Every year for the past 5 years, rejection letters from many elite colleges and universities have included a statement along the lines of “this year we received a record high number of applications” or “due to the 10% increase in applications for the class of 2020…” And these statements are no lie. Varying new outlets such as U.S. News and the New York Times confirm the increase of application rates and the resulting stress over the past decade. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that many students fall into destructive behaviors and suffer from increased rates of mental health disorders while going through the college application process and receiving admissions decisions.
Even among just my own peers, I’ve watched friends hospitalized for eating disorders, seen a massive increase in alcohol consumption and drug use, and noticed many more people regularly meeting with counselors and therapists. After just a few months of my senior year, enough of my friends dramatically changed their eating habits, cutting dairy or gluten from their diets or eating practically nothing at all, that I began to dread our lunch hour. Even more pervasive was the dramatic upturn in the party culture. To a certain degree, I think this is a product of getting older, but to absolve the stresses of the college process would be naïve. Drinking became the activity of choice and people began to avoid any social interactions that didn’t involve alcohol. The stark contrast between our lives during the week, which were entirely consumed by school work and stress, and the weekend nights when we were free to party led many of my friends to drink so much on that they would end up hurled over in the bathroom or passed out on the couch. This culture of binge drinking quickly became the only social life my peers knew and thus was a go to for “letting loose” before a week of big tests or due dates for college applications. I even watched one friend, who has never drank before, drink himself into utter oblivion after receiving a rejection letter from his first-choice university.
The problem with this culture of work hard, play harder that arises for many high-school seniors is pretty apparent. Students quickly become dependent on alcohol and still do not feel any better about themselves. So, the question we now need to be asking is how can we rectify this cycle of stress and intensity surrounding the college process and consequentially lower the rates of eating disorders, depression, and substance abuse among teens. Does it start with finding a way to untie college admissions decisions from individual’s sense of self-worth?