By Ben Faulkner
I had 683 applications to evaluate in four weeks. This averaged about 40 applications per day. For most college admissions readers, this isn’t an extraordinary number; in fact, it’s normal to have to read upwards of 80 in a day, or more. Unlike most of my admissions reading peers, though, I wasn’t evaluating for general admission to my university; I was reading for admission into the honors program.
I went into the process thinking that this might be an awkward experiment in revealing my personal biases. And it was: apparently I love coming out stories (no one who knows me will be surprised.) More importantly, though, it revealed to me a crisis undergirding the college admissions process.
Fair disclosure: these kids were unbelievable. Rarely did I see an SAT score below 1300, or a GPA below 3.8. They wrote incredibly well, much better than I ever did at their age. They were interning for Goldman Sachs, conducting graduate-level research, shadowing surgeons, writing code for Google, starting profitable businesses, and traveling the world. They organized campaigns, interned for senators, took an insane number of AP and IB classes, played varsity sports. Their essays were funny, sad, and engaging. They wrote about their love of morgues and their subsequent desire to study biological anthropology to improve how society treats the dead. They wrote about being raised by two moms in a deeply red state during the Bush administration. Many had already been published.
Perhaps it was the sheer concentration of talent in a short amount of time, but the process made this reader (a decently successful 29-year-old) question his own life accomplishments. It was like the college applications version of Instagram envy.
When I finally finished my set of applications, I leaned back in my chair and exhaled—not in relief, but in a kind of despair. Because undergirding every accomplishment in the pages before me was a deep yearning – a longing – to be seen. To be heard. To be validated. To be told that yes, with your perfect SAT score, your billion clubs, and your internship for the president, you’re finally worth it.
Several essays made me tear up. One was from a student who had done everything she could to be the best. She lived in Silicon Valley, spoke four languages, scored a top SAT score, was the president of her senior class, and had a flawless academic record. She was an only child. The topic of her essay?
Her struggle with her own self-worth.
And she wasn’t the only one. Many students wrote about this in some form or another, and even if they didn’t address it directly, I could still feel the questions burning beneath their stories: Am I enough? Am I worthy? Do I belong? Do I mean something to you?
I worked hard in high school. I cared about my grades, a lot. I applied to competitive schools. But I don’t think at any point during the process of choosing a school – or figuring out my next steps – I ever questioned if my inherent value was at stake. After reading nearly 700 permutations of the above scenario, I have to ask: Why does it seem like students (and, let’s be honest, their parents) are placing their very worth as humans on the line just to get into a top college?
I do think it’s exciting that students are pushing themselves. It’s why I work in a university honors program! And among the pile of 683, there definitely were students who’d pioneered unique territory for themselves, avoided the AP craze, and participated in extracurriculars that lit their fire.
And perhaps my data set is inherently skewed. These students were applying to an east coast university’s honors program, after all: of course they were going to be the crème de la crème. But even if these particular seventeen-year-olds felt the need to intern for a Goldman Sachs, write code for a million-dollar app, intern for their congressperson, and serve as the CEO of a nonprofit, just for a college application, then where else is there for them to go? The middle ground between being “exceptional” and a “failure” is growing smaller and smaller. So much so, I worried about the mental health consequences if I rejected them. Would my “no” send them into an emotional tizzy?
At heart, this isn’t a numbers crisis. It isn’t an application “bubble” crisis. It isn’t even a helicopter-parenting crisis.
It’s a spiritual crisis. When it comes to college admissions, we have to stop putting kids’ worth on the line. Getting into a top college just isn’t worth it. We have to understand that it’s the job of young adults to discover their curiosities, to take risks and fail safely, to learn how to balance pushing themselves with practicing self-care. If we give them space to do this, we may see fewer perfect SAT scores—but we’re going to have a healthier, more centered generation of youth, who will be ready to take on their world. (And who will have gotten eight hours of sleep the night before.)