College Dreams

Choosing a college is easy, it’s getting in that’s the tricky part.

Some teenagers have no sense of direction. They trudge along the bumpy road of life, not really sure where they’ll end up, only hoping that they’ll at least stay on the track. Others run. They jump over all the bumps no matter how high with their own personal maps in hand, always thinking, always planning which turn they’re going to take next. They know where they’re going and where the end will be. I’m one of the latter.

I made a commitment to my dream college when I was only 10, before I even knew anything about college. As soon as I heard its name escape my parents’ lips I was hooked. (I don’t want to mention it by name, I want to save my passion for my application.) As I got older I actually researched the Ivy League university in upstate New York and was delighted to find that it was exactly what I was looking for, and more. I didn’t know that I wanted to be an English major and a business minor at the time, but that didn’t matter. According to my parents, the place had everything. Besides, at 10 years old I wanted to be exactly like them. Six years later, my mind still hasn’t changed. However, I’m now at the point where I have to deal with my biggest obstacle yet, something I haven’t had to worry about until now: getting in.

Being dedicated to only one school is dangerous, especially nowadays. I asked my parents if it was hard to get in and whether they applied to other schools besides the one they attended together. Both of my parents are intelligent and remarked that while getting into college was difficult, they were both able to go exactly where they wanted. My mother was an excellent student but took no AP courses and had average SAT scores. My father was gifted in math and scored well on the SAT. They both applied early decision to the same school, my dream school, and were accepted. That sounded pretty good to me.

Since I’m a metaphorical runner, the kind of person who likes to plan ahead by at least five years, my fears and concerns about college set in as early as my freshmen year of high school. I worked my way through school, keeping track of my extracurricular activities and mentally picturing my tearful college interview where I would pour out my heart and soul to the school of my dreams. I imagined opening my acceptance letter...sometimes bursting into tears and other times running and screaming with cheerful insanity through the house and straight to the computer where I would share my joy with the world. I walked past the glorious acceptance letters tacked up in the school hallway, pointed to them and said, “That’s going to be me.” 

Back to reality. As a high school junior, the time has finally come for me to start thinking about my next stage in life. With my ultimate goal in mind, I begged my parents to get me an SAT tutor as soon as I got home from my teen tour across the United States his past summer. At our first meeting he asked me if I knew which schools I was aiming for. When I told him, he announced that I would need a score of over 2100 to get in. That’s equivalent to a score of 1400 back in the day. Uh oh. But wait...neither of my parents had passed the 1400 mark and they had both been accepted to the same school I was aiming for. What changed?

The answer is surprisingly simple. More people are applying to college than ever before. Why? Because there are more graduating high school students than ever before. And why is that? Well, it’s because their parents decided to have more children. In all seriousness, many believe that this new surge in competitiveness is an aftermath of the baby boom. The baby boomers themselves had fairly large families and now their children are all ready for college. With a much larger pool of capable applicants, colleges now have the opportunity to be more selective in whom they choose to admit. The more students that apply, the more selective colleges are forced to be in order to narrow down their options, according to a January 2008 Newsweek article.

Disheartened but determined, my motives remain the same. I often worry that I’m not unique enough to stand out among all the other hopefuls. After all, what’s so special about a Caucasian Jewish girl from Long Island with an almost picture-perfect family life? Believe me, there’s plenty more where I’ve come from.

I’ve never built houses in Guatemala, been featured on the news, broken a world record or climbed Mt. Everest. I’m also not superman. But should I really have to be all of those things just to get into college? It sure feels like it these days. Still, I know that there is little value in pretending to be someone I’m not. My passions may not be extraordinarily unique, but they define me. Horses and creative writing make me who I am. They are me. If accepting oneself isn’t enough to be accepted by others, then what is?

Ariel Cooper  is a junior at North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, L.I. 

This article is reprinted from October 30, 2009.