The Competition for College

Turn the nightmare of college applications into a dream of an experience.

It’s a Tuesday night. November of your junior year. You are studying for your upcoming math test. You reach a problem that you don’t understand. It’s OK, you think to yourself. It’s just one question. Then a nagging thought creeps into your mind: if I get one question wrong on that test, I won’t get the highest grade. My math average will go down, my GPA will be affected, and I may not get into college. Soon everything you do in school will have this same tinge to it, this same worry attached to your every thought. This is the college application experience for too many teens.

Every experience is called an experience for a reason. An experience changes a person; it shapes, defines, or reaffirms something within an identity. A true experience is deep and unforgettable. People are products of their experiences.
The college application process is an experience.

This fact is undeniable. The process takes a front seat in the life of a high school junior; it is the sole focus of one’s latter high school years. How can it not be a life experience? At the same time, however, the realities of today’s process do not seem to match up with the type of rich development and self-discovery that one always encounters through a true experience.
The application process is a mission. Students from different schools and backgrounds essentially compete against one another to be accepted into the colleges of their choice. No matter your background or home, you know about the goal of the application process: getting accepted to a college.

Students take standardized tests, load up on extracurricular activities, and work hard at school to get the best grades possible. Why? To get in. When watching my peers face the college process, the same phrase is heard more times than I can count, “Will I get in?”  “I simply have to get in,” nervous students say about the college of their choice.

I ask the obvious question in reply: why do you have to get into this specific institution? I learn that my question is not so obvious. The answers lack a coherent, well thought-out analysis of why this college is the person’s real dream. People are not thinking about why they would be happy and what they would gain. Instead, they are thinking about getting in. If they get in, they reason, then they will go. “Students are not doing enough research or visiting colleges in order to determine the best choices for themselves,” asserted Jaqueline Rockman, director of college guidance at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn. “The college process is about self exploration and reflecting on your own values, interests, strengths and passions, and finding the best college to help you to flourish.”

The way in which the application process is handled today seems backwards to me. The current process is focused on the practical and the simple: Which school can I get into most easily? What can I do to get this process over with quickly and efficiently? How can I land in an institution with a prestigious name?

In truth, the application process is an exploration into personal identity — a discovery of how we define ourselves and of what we truly want. This experience is about delving into this journey and taking on the challenge of figuring out who we are and who we want to be for the rest of our lives — not about going to a school simply because they have chosen us.

We are a smart, capable generation. We deserve more than to simply await a response. We deserve more than to simply “get in.” Every student deserves to decide; to truly think about what he or she wants for the next four years and to choose on his or her own. Not to be chosen, but to choose. “After all the hard work that these students put in, they have earned the right to find a school that will help them grow and thrive,” said a mother of a Yeshivah of Flatbush senior.

I am venturing on this expedition. I am trying to ignore the voices in my head and all around me that are focusing on “Will I get in?” I am telling myself that as long as I do the very best that I can, the rest is not up to me. What is up to me, however, is the decision of what I am looking for in my future.

When I think about college, I use this thought to help me hold on to my priorities: I remind myself that once you get in, it’s not over. You study there for four years, you live and breathe based on the place you have chosen. So I think about how I want my life to be; what I want to learn; whom I want to learn it with; the kind of experiences I hope to have. I think about everything that I hope my life will be in five years and I use that to choose the place that I feel will get me there.

I’m focusing on religious life, class size, courses that interest me, professors from whom I can learn the most, and people I can learn and gain from in my interactions with them. I am looking for a place that will teach me about literature and history and philosophy and art; a place that will immerse me in reading and writing and thinking and understanding. I am focusing on a place that will make me feel happy and at home; a place that will give me the tools to make a difference and make me feel that I am on a truly valuable and important journey of knowledge. I am not focusing on name or prestige, and most of all not on where I will or will not get in.

“The pressure of applying and being accepted to college often takes away from what college is really about — learning and discovering what makes you happy,” said Shelly Reizin, a junior at the Yeshivah of Flatbush.

The college application process is an experience. But this experience is lost if we treat the process less as an exploration and more as a contest to see who is the best, the brightest, the chosen ones. It is not only a competition. It is a personal journey. And neglecting this journey could cost us one of our most powerful life experiences.

author's bio: 
  Isabel Fattal is a junior at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn.