The Right Fit vs. Collecting Colleges as Trophies: A Student’s Perspective on College Applications

For me, the college applications process started early and finished late. And it was anything but easy. I “narrowed” my top choices to a list of 19, and I started mailing out my apps the summer before my senior year of high school. By the time that the school year had even started, I was already getting admissions letters in the mail. But 19 sounded absurd to me, even at the time. After all, wasn’t I only going to end up going to one? And this is only one example of the handful of likeminded questions that were running through my head. The more I considered it, the less it made sense. But at the same time there was something speaking louder, which I couldn’t resist: the pressure to conform.

I wanted to be a part of the college frenzy that was running rampant throughout my high school. I mean, it had started harmlessly enough—a few kids with Princeton shirts in middle school, rumors of summer camps at Duke—but by the time senior year rolled around, competition was so fierce that people didn’t even talk about where they were applying. In their eyes, every person who found out was just another number to compete against. So they kept their heads down, their mouths shut, and suddenly got very “busy” every weekend the SAT was offered, and got exponentially more frenzied the closer it got to the January 1st deadline.

Nevertheless, it was an exciting time. Most students kept their lips sealed about their plans, but I could get a pretty good clear picture of the kinds of schools they were thinking of, and how big their dreams were. And this secrecy only fueled the competition. At least…it provided me the push I needed until crunch time…until I was about halfway through the process, and I still had a stack of ten apps on my desk, and midterms were just around the corner. Until I started to lose it.

But it actually wasn’t the workload which ended up bogging me down, nor was it the logistical balancing act that put me over the edge. It was the sincerity of the application questions themselves, which looked at me in the eye and openly asked me “why do you want to attend ___________?” And for many of the schools, I realized that I didn’t have an honest answer. Sure, it would be nice to get in, to get the thick envelope, and to be able to tell my friends and teachers about it in late March. But because there were so many schools on my list, (that I had skimmed off the top of the U.S. News and World Report rankings) the reality was that there were many that I wasn’t interested in attending, and many that probably weren’t interested in me. I realized that even if I somehow came up with a convincing answer to the question, the college itself might not really be a good match—that for four years I might be the only kid on campus who wasn’t actually excited to go there. Regardless of how good it might look on paper.

The college-crazy culture that I had been living in had only been feeding my delusions. Each raised eyebrow and incredulous “wow, nine-TEEN?” had only encouraged me to go out and collect colleges like trophies. So I made the tough decision to cut my list drastically—to only focus on the schools that I really had a good, honest answer for—regardless of whether or not they were the “brand name” schools. It was a hard decision to make, but it was better to make it in high school than to stretch out the drama, up the ante on the tension, or in the worst case scenario: to burn out and to lose my passion for learning at a school where I really didn’t belong.

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