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Is Getting Into an Elite School the Only Way to Define Success?


Upon entering high school, I was under the impression that my life would resemble that of Marissa Cooper from The OC, coming home past my curfew because I was out with a cute boy or getting into some shenanigans with my best gal pals. If we ignore the blatant reality that I was not a wealthy, blonde teenager (who was obviously at least 25), my high school experience was still vastly different from the one depicted on the television programs I watched. In retrospect, I believe my high school experience more closely resembles Olivia Pope’s narrative on Scandal; I was constantly under pressure to appear perfect.


(Photo Credit: David Paul Ohmer/Flickr)

This obsession with creating a facade of perfection stemmed from the culture of the high school I attended, one that highlighted those who would go on to Ivy League schools and other reputable universities such as University of Chicago, MIT, and Stanford. Because of this glorification of acceptances at elite universities, my classmates and I were conditioned to believe that prestige was the only thing that mattered about the places we would go after we graduated high school.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Consider the commercialization of colleges and admissions offices’ efforts to get more people to apply just to reject them, it’s no surprise that students (and their parents) want to go to schools where 95 percent of the applicants were rejected; being in the 5 percent meant something special.

“If I go to one school with a 6 percent acceptance rate, that says one thing about me,” Frank Bruni said in an interview with Katie Couric. “If I go to a school with a 25 percent acceptance rate, well, that doesn’t say quite so much.”

In his recent talk on the toxic process of college admissions, “A Race With No Victors,” Bruni touched on experiences that felt very familiar to me. During senior application season at my school, we became masters of applying to schools, without considering much beyond getting into the most elite schools possible.

Now with all that said, my high school experience wasn’t awful: taking challenging courses in all subjects to appear well-rounded during application season allowed me to discover my passion for writing because I vastly preferred my English courses over my STEM ones. Additionally, being around incredibly bright and hardworking people motivated me to be just the same. However, this pressure to get into elite schools leads to problematic behavior.

Not Everyone Is Starting From the Same Place

To some degree, I noticed that my classmates and I viewed people by their scores without considering the diversity in socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Coming from a low-income household, I found myself vastly disappointed in my academic performance compared to my well-off peers.

This isn’t to say I was jealous of their privilege, but rather I didn’t consider the conditions and challenges I had to deal with that they did not; inevitably I felt incredibly inadequate, without understanding that my peers had the luxury of not having to worry about the financial situations of their households, making it easier to focus on academics. It was the same for all marginalized groups on campus, from the children of immigrants to the queer students to those struggling with domestic abuse. My peers and I continued to fail to recognize these struggles because we were so fixated on scores and statistics. The environment didn’t purposely choose to not celebrate diversity; our conditions simply normalized ignoring individual narratives.

Getting a Head Start on Total Lack of Work-Life Balance

Mirroring the lifestyles of overworked CEOs, many students from my high school made decisions detrimental to their mental, physical, and social health, due to the pressure to succeed academically to get into these top schools. For instance, I recall sleeping less than 10 hours in one week in order to keep my immaculate GPA during my junior year of high school. That was nothing compared to what some students did to keep up their grades. Others turned to taking Adderall to improve their focus during study sessions, ignored their families and friends to finish papers, and avoided getting help for their declining mental health.

Lastly, the pressure to get into a good school ironically promotes cutting corners in real academics in order to earn those outstanding test scores. Every student agrees that achieving high marks on exams is desirable and bad marks are undesirable. But, this simplistic way of defining success is harmful to the student.

More Than One Way to Define Success

More importantly, coupled with this desire to get into these top schools, the student is led to believe that grades are all that matter in education. In one incident that took place my senior year, the final exam for my AP physics course, a class open to seniors and juniors, was nullified because a significant number of students had shared the answer key among themselves. There were numerous examples of incidents like this: students doing all they can to get good grades, minus actually understanding the material. Unsurprisingly, because we put so much emphasis on grades being the key to the door of prestigious universities, we undermine the purpose of education as a whole: to learn.

As I glance over the college advising page alums created to help out current students with their academic pursuits, I see the familiar “How do I get into Ivys?” posts. Despite what I’ve said, I actually personally don’t find anything wrong to wanting to attend universities like Yale or Dartmouth. What I do find wrong is that we continue to perpetuate the idea that admission to these colleges is the only recognition of academic excellence.

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How would you define academic success? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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