In the next couple weeks, the first class of seniors to ever apply to college during a pandemic will be committing to the school where they will spend the next four years. This admissions cycle has been unlike any other. As it concludes, the students who have gone through it are reflecting on all the factors that contribute to an unhealthy college admissions system.

The most notable change this year was that the majority of US colleges going test-optional and some even going test-blind meaning very few colleges required a standardized test score on their applications. 

This accommodation was made to avoid unfairly harming students who were unable to test before test centers closed. However, it also meant some students who had been studying for months lost the opportunity to see their hard work pay off. 

“I spent hours going through ACT practice tests. I went through every single practice test since 2000 available on the internet. I practiced at least five times a week. It really feels like I wasted hours and hours of my life that I can’t get back,” said Natalie Nielsen, a senior at Rosemont.

“You’re kind of just sacrificing a lot of your time for something that American society has just put on a pedestal,” added Fatima Lizarde, a freshman at the University of Southern California.

Standardized tests have proven not to measure intelligence or to predict how well students do in college. Now that colleges have gone through a cycle without test scores, perhaps they are headed towards retiring the SAT and ACT for good. 

At least that is what some students are hoping for. 

“This entire SAT process? You’re talking about a business more than anything else,” said Shreejal Luitel, a freshman at UC Berkeley. 

When there are several test prep companies like The Princeton Review guaranteeing an SAT score of 1400 (out of 1600) or great for the price of $1,599 dollars, it is not hard to see why more affluent students end up with higher scores. 

“I think we should abolish testing. It’s just a systemic barrier in place [to exclude] lower-income students,” Luitel reasoned. 

“We should be shifting away from emphasizing test scores and instead to essays and actually seeing who an individual is, how they carry themselves, how their experiences have developed and have created who they are as a person,” suggested Lizarde.

Perhaps they will soon get their wish. The UCs have already decided to remove the requirement permanently and after this year, other colleges may be following suit. 

There is speculation that test-optional policies have caused the increase in applications. When students with scores that were under the average of their target school no longer needed to report those scores, they were more confident in choosing which colleges to apply to. 

The CommonApp — the application portal through which students can apply to most colleges — reported a 602,105 (or 11%) increase in applications this year. 

This fall, Nielsen will be attending UCLA which received 139,500 applications this year — the most of any other college in America. Because its application rate grew 28%, its acceptance rate fell 4%. 

In fact, almost all selective schools saw a big drop in their acceptance rate. It seems that the college admissions system is getting more competitive than ever. 

This has undoubtedly bred an intensely stressful environment for our students. Rosemont senior Ruma Poudell explained “I was straight up just burnt out.”

Nielsen recounted: “during my entire application season, I was so stressed and anxious over if I would get in and what it meant if I got in and what meant if I didn’t.”

What does it mean for students to not get into their dream school? As the college admissions arena is getting more intense, students often conflate the amount of acceptances they get with their own self-worth. 

It is an all-consuming experience as the worry leaks into every aspect of students’ lives. Nielsen even estimated having about college-related dreams for 30 nights after sending in her application. 

There is a culture where students push themselves as far as possible just to put together an impressive college application, making for an extremely tense senior spring when decisions are released.

“I think it’s really common to think ‘if I don’t get into these schools, then all the hard work I did during high school just didn’t pay off,’” Nielsen explained. 

Elitism is something that runs deep in the college admissions system. Students often romanticize a select few colleges with “brand names,” believing that these institutions are the only guaranteed path to success. 

“Since we are so focused on prestige, not getting into these schools really does affect the mental health of the people that can’t get in. Conversely, to the people who do get in, I think that it goes to a lot of people’s heads.”

The impact of rejections are intensified even more by the fact that students often supplement their applications with personal stories. 

“People pour their souls into essays and their applications. You outline your entire life. You say these are my grades in every single class I’ve ever taken. This is an essay about what means the most to me. If you get rejected, then a lot of people take that as you know ‘I’m not a valuable person’ rather than ‘I am not a good fit for the campus.’”

When applications are so personal, rejections are too. 

“It’s a dangerous game to play when it comes to admissions because the reality is colleges dish out a lot more rejections than they do acceptances,” Nielsen continued. 

“College admissions truly are so random because it comes down to these marginal differences between students.”

When COVID-19 put the world on pause, it also took away a lot of the activities that students rely on to make themselves stand out to colleges.

“I was so stressed about not getting to go to the opportunity that I got in LA over the summer because of COVID. It got to that point where I was so stressed about where I was going to get into versus acknowledging the fact that I tried my best,” explained Poudell. 

The pressures students feel is already overwhelming, but what makes the process even more frustrating is the fact that some students are getting admitted to top schools based on factors other than merit. 

“I think especially with the college admissions scandal, a lot of people saw a side of corruption in admissions that they hadn’t seen before. It’s not just these rich billionaires that are able to like buy their kids ways into school that is the problem.” Nielsen elaborated. 

Last month, Netflix released a documentary detailing how Rick Singer managed to help countless students scam their way into college by fabricating SAT scores or masquerading as athletes. 

Even without cheating, wealthier students have a leg up in every step of the admissions game. When Lizarde reflected on her application process, she said “my biggest problem was kind of just the cost attached to every aspect and element of college admissions. There’s always a cost.”

“There’s a cost to taking the SAT or ACT. All those test scores, there’s a cost to it. Even like your own experience in high school, such as extracurriculars, clubs, sports, there’s always a cost to it. And all of these things add up.”

If the application process is littered with heavy price tags, merit is not the only factor influencing admissions. 

“As someone who came from a low income background. I always knew that I had to work harder than other people because I didn’t have the same resources,” Lizarde explained. 

Because of all the inequalities riddled throughout college admissions, students need to place less weight on which institutions they are going to for the sake of their mental well-being. 

“It’s probably cliche but frankly, it doesn’t really matter which institution. What really matters is the work that you’re trying to put in —  how much you dedicate yourself,” Luitel concludes.