As the countless Instagram stories on @andoveradmissions show the “#1 in America again” screenshot of Niche.com, it’s hard to forget that Andover is considered by many as the best high school in the country. And as many of the students know, this title is a bittersweet one. Before Andover, we were often considered the best at our middle schools—in one, if not multiple aspects. While we state that part of the Andover experience is coming to terms with not being the best, a process that looks different for everyone, it’s also hard to overstate how difficult it is to turn away and choose not to engage with the “desire to be the best.” The Andover student body is full of geniuses and over-achievers, likely incredibly competitive ones, at that.
Thus, with the Andover student body full of geniuses and over-achievers, it’s not too surprising to see that “college culture,” a hyper obsession with prestigious and highly-selective schools, exists––and somewhat of a toxic one at that. Moving from high school to college, there is a deep expectation to earn a spot at the best of the best. After all, everyone wants to be able to repost that “#1 in America again” wherever they study next. Some students chose Andover as a stepping stone to a selective college. We attend this school for the rigor, the people—but also the prestige. After all this time aiming for the best, it feels unnatural to then “drop” in ranking, regardless of whether the colleges we aim for are actually worth it. This is Andover culture, both a cause and effect of our matriculation.
On top of this, familial pressures shape the way that students approach the college process through a hierarchy of schools. Ideas of “brand names” and “top tier” schools are ingrained into students’ minds from their parents, and other family members. For them, the college process becomes less about discovery and focuses more on attaining a goal based on labels. It’s difficult to stray away from this mindset of categorization when students base their success on how others view them.
Perhaps we can speak on behalf of the Seniors and say that college culture most definitely exists. Some of us are facing the brunt of it as we prepare for the November 1 early school deadlines while others are not affected by college culture at all. Yet, it remains a problem for all of us.
As we associate college destinations with success and success with self-worth, we immerse ourselves in an ocean of stress, and we hold our breaths underwater until we reach the shore. That is, no matter how exhausted we feel, we feel the need to pull ourselves together because we still have to be staying on top of our coursework, athletics, clubs, and all sorts of engagements. That’s what everyone else is doing anyways, isn’t it? We almost feel ashamed for not being able to solve a problem, make a sports team, or post the most insightful comment on a Padlet because everybody else seems to have no blunders, so we strive to present ourselves in the same way. Yet the truth is that we each spend so much time turning ourselves into a perfect candidate for prestigious colleges that every person has the illusion that they are the only person struggling and resorts to creating their own facade and thus perpetuating the cycle. We forget that we can find meaning in things beyond working towards an acceptance letter and that we are allowed to be vulnerable.
As cliché as this sounds, we are more than college acceptance letters. Andover is one of the best high schools in the nation, yet Andover students know better than anyone else that there’s simply so much more to this school than the titles and validation. The past year and a half can attest to this. Even though we still technically attended Andover, learning through Zoom sessions, not being able to see our peers, and being physically remote from the greater community has taught us that Andover truly is more than a school. There is so much beauty to Andover than what can be delivered through “Best High School in America.” And so, if we can recognize this fact, perhaps we can allow ourselves to imagine the next four years of our lives through more than just rankings and prestige. So the next time you receive a bad grade on a history paper or miss a shot on the courts, instead of swallowing it yourself, remember to swim to the surface and take a breath: you will be surprised to see how many other people are there with you.