One of the single most defining aspects of one’s high school career is the college application process, a process near-complete but still ebbing out for most seniors today. And though the experience of applying to college has been a large part of the American teenager’s life for much of our nation’s history, it’s changed drastically in just the past few decades.
Through the ever-growing population, the economic development of foreign countries, and the increased professional necessity of higher education, college admissions are more competitive than ever. And, most importantly, through the advent of the internet, students are given more support, connections, and information than ever, leading to both more confidence and more anxiety.
While researching for this column, I’ve talked with dozens of future college students, and far and away the most common impact of the application process that they identify is the impact it’s had on their self-perception. For many, applying to college has been, in part, a positive period of reflection, building their confidence in their accomplishments and allowing them the opportunity to think critically about their motivations and future goals.
I know that, for me, in writing the seemingly bottomless stack of supplemental essays, I was able to do some of the best writing I’ve ever done and left with a much greater understanding of who I am and what I aspire to be. That being said, after writing thousands of words about what brings me inspiration, what motivates me to learn, what lights my fire, I’ve found myself burnt out. I don’t think I ever want to talk about myself ever again.
And this burnout is very common. Alongside the periods of self-confidence and reflection come the periods of self-loathing and stress. While categorizing and evaluating everything one’s done in the past four years, there inevitably come deep feelings of regret and inadequacy.
The emotional toll is something that very few of us expected but almost all of us experienced. And this feeling of ineptitude is often exacerbated by the wealth of college-application-related content on the internet. I’ve found myself falling down internet rabbit-holes, bingeing college acceptance and rejection videos, and obsessing over others’ statistics and accomplishments and admissions results.
And the place my internet explorations most often took me was the Reddit forum r/ApplyingtoCollege, a space for prospective students, admissions “experts,” and recent college admits to discuss the process. And while the horror stories and stress culture on the forum don’t always promote optimism, this site has become an extremely valuable source of information and support.
When I asked members of this online community to describe how the internet has affected their application process, several mentioned that the internet was the only reason they were able to apply to college at all. One user told me that while the adults in their life were totally supportive, they were also completely clueless about the basics of college applications. They explained that the internet was their “saving grace,” providing information and guidance without which the user most likely wouldn’t have been able to apply to college at all. Brilliant students from disadvantaged backgrounds have been able to attend college for the first time in history due to the internet alone.
However, the online community around college admissions has also led to a huge amount of cynicism regarding the process as a whole. One user of r/ApplyingtoCollege asked me to quote them directly, saying that applying to college is “f***ing terrible … In short, it made me cynical as f***.”
And the complaints are not baseless. The price to submit a college and financial aid application can be over a hundred dollars, and colleges will often reject students on arbitrary grounds due to overwhelming numbers of applications or as a strategy to bump up their ranking by lowering admissions rates and increasing yield — a measure of how many admitted students end up attending.
Countless extremely qualified candidates are rejected from prestigious schools despite their perfect grades, impressive test scores, extensive extracurriculars, and the fact that most adults in their lives told them they were a shoo-in. One user, when asked about their experience applying to college, simply responded, “Hell.”
However, despite the stress, the self-loathing, the ranking of one’s life’s achievements, and the often inexplicable admissions decisions, the college application process is, by definition, only the introduction to a much more exciting, fulfilling, and stressful future. The internet has given students who would never before have had the opportunity to go to college the information and ability to apply, and the communities built online by students experiencing this emotional rollercoaster together allow applicants the support networks and personal agency to be successful.
Applying to college is tortuous and inspiring, full of grief and elation, hope and despair, and it’s only just the beginning.
Sarah Teague is a student journalist for The Olive Branch and a senior at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School.