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Vassar: Changing the college admissions process is for the better

Life is defined by numbers. At birth it’s your weight, date and time. As you get older, some letters are thrown into the mix (license plates) but you still have your social security number, credit score, and credit card number to define you. In college it’s our student ID numbers, how much money we don’t have, the number of beers we can chug, how many days we’ve gone without laundry (12 is my record), and how many times you’ve seen that girl you followed on Instagram walking to class but can’t build up the courage to say anything, or even know what you’d say.

For many of us, the most defining numbers in our life so far have been our results on college placement tests. The SAT, AP, PMC, PSAT, PSMD, ASVAB, and the NMSQT are just a few of the of the seemingly infinite and constantly changing tests that decide so much of our future. Because of the changing metrics to stay relevant and because there are so many tests are given, you didn’t even realize that two of these acronyms are plucked right from a ‘decode your kids texting lingo’ ad aimed at clueless parents trying to make sense of the Internet. I’m sure the companies putting out these tests wouldn’t have either.


The exhaustive and painstaking process of bubbling in question after question, worrying that if I sneeze too loudly I might invalidate my test and therefore jeopardize my future, is still fresh in my mind. Despite the fact that much of what’s tested is hardly covered in school and you have to hope that whatever is on the practice exams is going to be on the test, some just aren’t good test takers or have a disability that causes anxiety which hinders their performance. The current admission system chokes the joy out of childhood, and the testing doesn’t show common sense or personality, nor does it provide an equal playing field for those with disabilities or struggle financially. It’s requirement process puts too much weight on numerical indicators such as these tests and the importance of meaningful engagement in communities and other qualities like creativity, empathy, charisma or ambition are undervalued. It’s more than time for a change.

The message that applications processes are sending today, and have been for a while, emphasizes personal achievement over satisfaction, or happiness and underscores many attributes of a well-rounded individual. Harvard’s Making Caring Common project found that in over 10,000 middle and high school aged students, only 22% of them valued happiness and caring for others over personal success. Many colleges have become progressively more aware of their roles in being part of the problem of social mobility. They have recognized their admissions process is more partial to, and more inclination to accept more students from affluent families and with higher test scores. Finally acknowledging that kids admitted to the top schools are either filled with stress or bleak drones with no capacity for expression or exploration of honest passion, they’ve admitted that the admissions process has had a significant contribution. The concern over the “multiple choice test generation” and what it implies can be remedied by taking the same actions Harvard, Stanford University, the University of Chicago and over 120 other colleges have. Their new program – Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions – strives to create a new application process, as well as a portfolio platform, for high school students. The program hopes to reshape college admissions and “send a more balanced set of messages” regarding achievement and what it means to be. The new process would endorse more ethical engagements with and among students, reduce the excessive amount of pressure on academic achievement, and level the playing field for students not as economically stable as others.

The reports first recommendation supports community service. This could take the form of “substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income.” Applicants have earned respect in the admissions process for work experience for decades, but community service never carried the same weight flipping burgers did. Working for a good cause or one’s family is not only commendable, but also would give a leg up to underprivileged applicants when applying to highly selective or Ivy league colleges. The second recommendation calls for admissions officers sifting through hundreds of applications to convey to students that “simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas”. Schools in poorer income areas aren’t as likely to offer A.P. courses, and the heavy workload they require is attributed to be a big factor in sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression among high schoolers. This would give students more time to focus on creative ventures and more widely explore different colleges and career fields to find the one that is right for them. Turning the Tide had made great strides to make the college admissions process focus more on quality over quantity and in shifting their focus, colleges hope to inspire students to use their high school years formatively.

At this point, the only argument against the changing the admissions process is essentially “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”. Those against all Turning the Tide have to offer essentially reason that, if you’re not getting good test scores then you shouldn’t even be considered for top colleges, or college whatsoever. While, yes test scores are important to testing knowledge, memory, and information retention, the hypothetical kitchen here is upwards of 104 degrees F. No, I didn’t just pick a temperate that seemed pretty warm, I picked 104 because it’s at that temperature when the human body becomes susceptible to heatstroke. The heatstroke in this case being all the stress, pressure, and emotional wrecks that are a direct result the college application process.

The metaphorical kitchen proved to be too hot for one of my friends who recently dropped out of high school. Like many students today, she’s frustrated with the numerically obsessed system. “They don’t actually know who we are, just the score we got on a test we took in our Junior year of high school”. Her words speak volumes, and out of all the people and organizations mentioned in this article, the voice of a student who is suffering first hand from the numbers obsessed system should carry the most weight.

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