Nothing Personal

What kind of student does the college admissions process select? A) The intellectually interested B) The well-rounded C) The passionately involved D) All of the above E) None of the above I didn’t have the greatest break, and I suspect plenty of Seniors didn’t either. The time I spent with family and friends was wonderful but severely limited, since I spent pretty much every waking moment until January 1, 2009 hunched over my desk, surrounded by crumpled balls of paper and empty cans of Mountain Dew, trying to stuff my entire high school experience into 500 word vessels to be sent optimistically off for judgment. For better or worse, we invest tremendous quantities of time, unhealthy amounts of stress, and most significantly, our hopes for the next four years, in the college admissions process. We usually judge a process by its results, but when the results are so subjective, so sensitive, and so personal, we have to judge the process itself. In this case, we have to judge the way the process judges us. We have to ask ourselves: are we happy with the way admissions works? The way our college fates are determined contrasts sharply with that of our Asian peers. In countries like China and Japan, extracurricular activities are literally a foreign concept; the results of a single test, taken once a year, determine college admissions. Luckily our institutions have decided to value less quantifiable qualities: our intellectual passion, our commitment to our activities, our diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives. But herein lies a new problem. The college admissions process is inescapably quantified. Judgment is inevitably issued. We are either admitted to the college we so desperately want to attend, or rejected, or even worse, subjected to the nightmare of the waitlist. By issuing a one-word response not to our test score but to our attempt to communicate who we are, the college process commodifies emotion and turns a holistic identity into a skill you can learn from guidebooks, a gimmick to be cultivated for the sake of prestige. No one wants the SAT to turn into China’s gaokao (a three-day long affair that no one has ever achieved a perfect score on) but we have to recognize that there’s an inherent incompatibility between what our college-admissions process asks of us and what it gives. Every essay prompt is a reincarnation of the question, “Who are you?” Is it a good thing that our answers are run through the merciless mill of thick or thin envelopes? And even if we agree that this is a problem, is there a better alternative? Is this process doomed to be miserable and cruel? When colleges claim to look at “the whole person,” how can we not take a rejection letter personally? Students have to realize that the college admissions process is not about us. We envision the process as some sort of sovereign arbiter, rewarding us for our hard work and accomplishments, but the process does not exist to pat us on the back. The process is about what colleges are looking for that year, and as things stand today, sometimes they’re looking for a trombone player, sometimes they’re looking for a kid from Nepal. If you never liked brass instruments and you’re not from Nepal, but you’re a great kid who works hard, don’t let a flawed process ruin your life. They’re going to judge you, and they’re going to judge you in a very personal way. But if it’s at all possible, don’t take it personally. The old relationship cliché may be true: it’s not you; it’s them. Be as honest as you can, reassure yourself that they don’t know you and they never will, and maybe fall in love with your safeties. If this December you got the wrong kind of news, maybe it’s not your answer that was wrong. Maybe the answer was E: sometimes this process selects none of the above. Tiffany Li is a three-year Senior from Highland Park, Ill.