I don’t know when the “college process” really began. The name itself is ominous, bringing to mind the classic images of drawn-out applications and months of waiting. But as the light at the end of the tunnel approaches, I’ve begun to realize that I’ve only ever seen this so-called process as something for the future. Now, that future is here.
For however long college has sat in my mind, though, it wasn’t until fairly close to the early action deadline in early November that I decided where to apply. There are some schools, like Boston University or Northeastern or UMass Amherst, that I never really questioned, but that also never particularly drew me in with anything beyond their nearby presence and large yield from South. Only after some preliminary research, I opted, maybe on a whim, to apply to Harvard under its restrictive early action plan. As of writing, my decision comes out on this article’s print date.
I’m not exactly sure why I applied to Harvard. It has things that I like, from incredible research opportunities to enormous flexibility in course load and concentration, but I don’t know if I’ll commit should I somehow manage to get in. For all its benefits, nothing about the school necessarily jumps out at me enough to warrant an instant commitment. Going into this application process, I thought that this kind of mindset — that no matter the admissions decision, I don’t owe any college my commitment — would prevent me from falling into the same trap of competitiveness and inflexibility that drives so much of the toxic environment fostered at South around admission to prestigious schools. I think, on some level, that philosophy has worked out; I haven’t found myself developing anything close to a ‘dream school’. But as deadlines approach and applications whittle down, I’ve realized that the issue isn’t just South’s environment; it’s how uneven the odds are within it.
There’s a common perception that the primary competition for spots in a college class is within your high school — that you don’t have to be the best in the world, so long as you’re better than the people in your hallways. Is this true? I have no idea, but it’s an easy enough narrative to believe. And yet, its apparent simplicity — that it’s the best, the most qualified, the most deserving students who get in — betrays the truth lurking beneath, and the truth that I’ve come to realize as my applications wrap up is that it’s not the best who wins.
Think about it. For all of the enrichment that South offers, external factors like socioeconomic circumstances, parental education and private sports that cost hundreds of thousands to pursue, to name just a few, play just as large, if not larger, roles in admissions. Take legacy status: no matter how hard you work, whether a parent or grandparent attended the school you’re applying to incredibly increases your odds. Harvard’s legacy admission rate, six times its overall rate, is evidence enough. Who’s to say that a legacy who gets in worked just as hard, is just as smart or has the same qualifications as someone without that boost?
And this plays into the biggest question I’ve encountered throughout the college process: who deserves to get in? The answer is simple: it depends. But to act as if all admissions are the same — as if the double legacy’s success is somehow equal to that of the first-generation student, or that the public school basketball player deserves the same chances at recruitment as the fencer or rower, who could afford the enormous costs of competition — ignores the inequality present, and just how much so many at South capitalize upon it.
Admission doesn’t mean qualification.