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Because of the changes that have taken place in the college admissions process over the past year, students applying to college are experiencing more stress and rejection than ever before. Especially without any in-person support or comfort, many have found themselves overwhelmed by the experience to an almost unbearable degree. The increasing competitiveness of college admissions significantly adds to the pressure, which is resulting in a decline in mental health for many high schoolers. Furthermore, many schools nationwide are unequipped to provide adequate resources for all of their students’ well-being, which can create a full-blown mental health crisis under these demanding circumstances.
I distinctly remember this anxiety during my own college application season. The week before I heard back from Yale, my dream school, I was so anxious I couldn’t even eat, sleep, or focus on schoolwork. I had been working so hard for the past three and half years to create a stellar portfolio of accomplishments, and it felt like a “yes” from an Ivy League school would make it all worth it. I started telling people I wanted to go to Yale in seventh grade, and by the time I was actually applying, I really felt like going there was the only way to accomplish my ambitious goals for the future. Even though I was initially devastated by a deferral from the Early Action pool, I was lucky enough to eventually get in—and luck is a huge factor in Ivy League college admissions—but the sheer anxiety of receiving decisions from colleges was nearly crippling for me. Given that the number of applicants to Yale College has jumped from 31,455 in my high school graduation year of 2016 to 46,905 in 2021, it’s likely many well-accomplished students like myself burned themselves out just to get accepted—it’s practically mandatory at this point—and didn’t get the news they wanted.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for students to be conditioned to aspire to attend top colleges and universities from an early age, starting in middle and even elementary school. This could be attributed to the portrayal of academic prestige and success on social media and/or opinions from teachers and parents, thus many young people put the burden on themselves to be perfect in everything they do before they even become teenagers. Getting into a top college can feel like a validation that they have achieved that idea of success that others have shown them or that they themselves have idolized, which can negatively impact their self-esteem and even lead to anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders that require medical attention. Working on college applications can feel like a be-all and end-all moment of this goal of perfectionism, and this mindset can have damaging effects for years to come.
“The problem is that the admissions system itself has gotten so confusing and extreme that in the course of giving your kid a better chance to get into an elite college, it’s all probably also making them miserable, anxious, and stressed,” said former Yale professor and author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. The pressure robs them of much of what is fun and joyful about being a kid and a teenager and also a lot of what’s necessary psychologically and socially for them to develop into happy, healthy adults. They’re missing out on what’s ultimately going to be good not only for them but also for the people around them over the course of their lives.”
With the advent of the holistic approach to college admissions comes an unfortunate intertwining of a student’s personal identity and their college application persona, which can wear on a student’s actual self-perception and cause more long-term damage. Colleges only exacerbate this issue by asking students to showcase their personalities in order to become a part of the chosen few. To quote Matt Feeney in the New Yorker, students are “under pressure—from themselves, from their parents, from the general message that success in America requires a prestigious degree—and the colleges do their cruel part in ratcheting up the pressure when they gloat about their tiny acceptance rates.”
The truth is that wherever you attend college does not define who you are, your worth, and your abilities. When working with students, I try to shift the emphasis away from a school’s name and instead consider what a school can offer them. Crafting a brand and personal narrative in your college application may be necessary, but you as a person are more than just your college application or list of acceptances and rejections.
And here is another important thing to remember while applying to colleges that may lessen this anxiety—wherever you end up going, you will be fine. It is a clichéd thing to say, and it might sound hypocritical coming from a Yale graduate. Still, in hindsight, I actually wish I hadn’t placed so much emphasis on getting into a top school because it would’ve allowed me to consider other options (especially if the stars hadn’t aligned so that I could be accepted) and have more fun in high school. While it’s still worthwhile to work hard in high school and apply to your dream school, it can also be beneficial to acknowledge that you can absolutely be successful and happy without a degree from an elite school. You may even be happier attending a less competitive institution that you never previously considered.
“It is natural to want to quantify and to seek the “best,” but this is inherently subjective,” writes Brennan Barnard in Forbes. “What might be an ideal school for one student could be a disaster for another.” If you put yourself first in the college admissions process, it will benefit you in the long run.
If you’re a student who is applying to college soon or simply worried about the admissions process in the future, just know that you are not alone and that it is always okay to seek help—see above for a hotline that can connect you to resources for mental illness treatment in your area. And if you’re a parent of a stressed-out high schooler, it’s best to be mindful of how this grueling process could be affecting their self-image and mental state.