The College Application Process Fails Students

I give the college-application process in the United States a big, fat F!

In recent years, the pressure to get into not-just-any college, but one of the top 100 universities as ranked by any of the major publications touting expertise in this field, has reached a failing point.

The prevailing winds of change are plaguing students who up until about a couple of decades ago, could concentrate on getting good grades and an acceptable SAT score to get them a spot in college. Today, they will do whatever it takes to get close to a perfect score to succeed in the hyper-competitive college-application process.

Cheating on the SAT is on the rise; ADHD drugs are being abused by students to gain  an edge on the make-or-break exam; and the questionable move by the College Board to first allow, and after pressure from the media, then held back from permitting 30 elite students from taking the SAT during the summer at an exclusive test prep curse, are evidence that the American college-application process is spiraling out of control.

The SAT is a reasoning test administered by the College Board and is supposed to level the playing field for every student. However, the four-hour test essentially gives those who can afford tutoring or are naturally high score-getters, a leg up over the rest of the average-scoring student population regardless of the high school GPA they earned over four years.

The importance college admissions has placed on the ‘hard numbers’, which includes GPA and SAT scores, is placing undue pressure on high school students and driven them to find ways to beat the test.

A piece on the television show “60 Minutes”, revealed that students and their parents willingly paid over $3,000 to other high-scoring students to take the SAT on their behalf, hoping to score high enough to gain admission to a highly selective university.

So far, a new measure that will be adopted by the College Board to correct this cheating problem, is to in the future include a photo on the test ticket and check all IDs more rigorously. “Students will also have to provide their gender and birth date. Officials said one of the five teenagers arrested as a test-taker, Samuel Eshaghoff, a 2010 graduate of Great Neck North High School, had taken tests for girls with gender-neutral names — including his girlfriend — and had shown fake identification. Mr. Eshaghoff has reached a plea deal with prosecutors, but the details are sealed.”

News that students at Amherst University’s summer SAT test prep program who could afford the $4,500 price tag, had the added unfair advantage of taking the SAT during the calm, and less stressful summer months as part of this course, was welcomed with outrage.  All other test-takers must subject themselves to taking the SAT during the school year on top of finals, AP exams and other school-related tests. However, after heavy pressure from the media, the College Board cancelled the August SAT for this select group of students.

Most recently and quite disturbing, a New York Times article highlighted that many students are turning to the focus-inducing medication Adderall or Ritalin to gain the stamina and alertness necessary for the marathon four-hour exam.

Students reported getting false prescriptions and buying pills from friends to snort the orange powder minutes before taking the make-or-break college admissions exam.

The stakes are very high for students with college dreams. Demand is outpacing the supply of ‘decent’ universities that hard-working students have been told they need to get into so they can secure a successful job.

This dream is quickly fading.

Whether it’s in sports, academics or community service, high school students are covering all the bases to simply be eligible to attend a university with enough weight that upon graduation will swing the job doors wide open. Students have been working double time to rise above the rest at their own high schools, so they can then rise to the top of the application piles instead of landing at the bottom of an admission officer’s rubbish tin.

While students are forced to get As to enter the highly competitive college-application arena, the college application process earns Fs across the board — there is no guarantees of a spot at any college, much less “the college of their choice”. It is entirely up to colleges to choose whom they’ll admit. And the applicant pool is becoming better qualified making it that much more difficult to create a truly diverse class of college students.

The system is broken. What can we do about it? For starters, toss the SAT. It is an antiquated test which gives the privileged few an even better chance of attending prestigious schools because they can attend better high schools and can afford costly test prep programs.

As far as students, there is not much they can do about the overwhelming pressure to attend a prestigious college. A student either opts into this whirlwind college-application storm, or they opt out essentially throwing their future to the vicissitudes of the career winds.

What do you think about the level of stress, money, drugs and unfair advantages facing students to gain admission to college?


  1. Even from a spectator’s view, the whole process seems too much and too stressful for a young person to handle. Though, it also seems almost impossible for the whole system to change, or it might take a decade or two for any concrete change to surface.

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