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The College Rat Race
December 22, 2017
There is one phrase in the English language that nearly every high school student in America hears much too often for their own taste:
It’ll look good on college applications!”
But despite the distaste many students feel towards the constant repetition of this dreaded sentence, high school students continue to engage in “resume building:” enrolling in certain activities and taking certain classes for no reason other than college pressure. Recent increases in the importance of standardized tests, lower acceptance rates from top schools, and inconsistent and inflated grading standards that lead to the “Everyone has a 4.0 these days!” philosophy put a tremendous amount of pressure on high school students to participate in extracurricular activities. Everyone in high school knows someone who has a laundry list of activities that they do, even though they don’t care about any of them. Correctly or not, these students think their future rests on even the smallest details of their college applications and that, somehow, if they can just add one title to their resume, they’ll guarantee a future for themselves that shines brighter than a Pantene commercial. In other words, many high school students base their entire lives around the vague possibility of a future they can never fully guarantee.
The high school landscape is rapidly changing. Students today are driven to bad decisions. Because they are extremely over scheduled, they sleep only when everything is done, which it never is. A 2006 National Sleep Foundation poll found that more than 87% of high school students get far less than the recommended eight to ten hours of sleep. That number is only increasing. Sleep deprivation is linked to a myriad of health problems, distracted driving, and poor performance in school. Poor sleep and over scheduling both lead to a culture of underperformance, where quantity, not quality, is pushed upon the top students.
Today’s culture of pressure and necessary perfection also has wreaked havoc on high school students’ mental health. One in five students in the US will show symptoms of mental health issues, and in one survey, 17% of Iowa juniors reported having wanted to commit suicide in the previous year. School counselors, psychologists, and social workers are often dramatically understaffed and are unable to help students who need it. Students feel alone, unseen, ignored, and their mental health crumbles under the numerous pressures pervading their lives—including pressure for academic achievement and college acceptance.
That same college pressure has caused a dramatic rise in cheating over the last 50 years. Nowadays, according to the Educational Testing Service, about 75% of high school students admit to academic dishonesty. That number rises to 80% among top students, despite cheating being traditionally linked to those with poor grades. Even more concerning, many students feel justified in cheating, because they see students around them cheating, and don’t think it would be fair for cheaters to get a higher grade than them. They lay the blame for their cheating on poor teaching that failed to adequately prepare them, leading to their need to cheat. High school students bring these lax ethics with them to college, where they are far more likely to cheat if they have already in high school. The growing fear is that these morals will follow students into the workforce. Students are compromising their morals, their time, and themselves for the sake of this college quest.
To some, this system for getting into college may seem ridiculous. However, even students who criticize this educational rat race find themselves unable to disrupt the system, boxed into a set web of grades, clubs, sports, and community service so tight that there is almost no room for movement. Students who try to work outside this box, even a little, are instantly swamped with extra work that threatens everything else. This is partly why students who pursue creative hobbies are often forced to make a choice between the things they love and the things they ‘must’ accomplish in order to get into college. And if they choose to do what they love, their future could be forfeit. Because many of these activities have no standard measure of success, like official clubs, awards, or leadership positions, the work to which students dedicate their lives is overlooked.
There are many steps that schools can take to reduce the burden on students. High schools can enforce consistent grading and de-emphasize AP classes as the only way to perform as a high-level student. They can work to reduce the amount of meaningless homework handed out everyday. In turn, colleges can help by limiting the amount of activities that can be listed on their applications, prioritizing quality over quantity. They can learn to care about personal substance and excellence in non-traditional areas.
But these token policies can only go so far. America has to change the way it views education. Personal substance and the interests of individual students must be prized above stock achievements on a resume if we are to escape the net of commercialized higher education. A system such as ours is fit only for those who have no interest in learning but see college as a means to an end, as a way to get prospects and qualifications for the workforce. Students should be able to love what they study and participate in, and they should be able to get into college using their own personal journeys in their own fields. Uniform applications which result in every Harvard student being exactly the same are useless to both American students and American institutions. Only by embracing a variety of people, viewpoints, and skills can we craft a better future, and colleges need to understand that and apply it to their admissions policies. As our educational system becomes increasingly commercialized, we need to learn to see the people behind the veil of money. We need to stop seeing education as a financial transaction, as a means to get some cushy high-paying job. When we truly learn, all of society benefits.