Pandemic High School
By Mackenzie Cramer, Graduating senior at Maria Carrillo High School
This past March (and early April), many seniors stared at the words “status update” on their computer screens. These two dull words held what seemed to be the key to young people’s futures.
College has become a fantasy. Whether it’s the dream of independence gained through university, or the payoff of all of their hard work in high school, higher education has become an end-all for many students. They work and struggle and persevere to get accepted to their dream schools and then cross their fingers that they can afford it.
Every year there is a flood of college decision reaction videos posted to YouTube. High school seniors record themselves clicking on the terrifying update in their portals and capture their reactions to the result. The hope and anxiety are clear — this is what they have been waiting for. The letdown is often just as emotional. They are faced with either incredible jubilance at the unexpected (but hoped for) decision or frustrated tears at their worst fears confirmed. These decisions are seen through the lens of success or defeat, a final judgement on their character, effort, and worth.
This mindset contains flawed thinking that could potentially be harmful to students applying, something that these schools recognize and attempt to combat. Even within the application decision letters, universities remind students of the incredible amounts of applicantions they received and stress that the decision is not a measure of the student’s worth. Colleges simply can’t accept everyone, and they constantly make clear that their decisions are not personal.
To make matters worse, it’s well known that the application process has been corrupted and not all students have the same advantages or “earn” their college acceptances fairly.
Higher education has long perpetuated social and economic inequities inherent within society. In 2019, news broke of a college admissions scandal in which many affluent parents paid to secure a place for their children at popular universities. Aside from these instances of plain bribery, extremely affluent people are able to legally donate large amounts of money to universities in order to potentially have their child’s application receive extra attention. Many questions have been raised concerning the validity of “legacy students,” seeing as many firstgeneration and low-income students are less likely to have said label and receive a second look by admissions teams as a result. Furthermore, those that can pay for tutors and college application counselors, and have expendable time to participate in extracurriculars, may reap these increased benefits when their applications are being considered.
Despite students’ awareness of these issues, the emotional weight of these decisions often does not waver. Students invest days sharing their life stories, making it difficult to come to grips with the idea that the decisions are not personal. A verdict on their achievements, grades, and time commitments creates a connection between students’ identities and their applications. No matter if universities receive an unprecedented number of applicants; the only application that students care about is their own. A reminder that there are other students in their same position often comes as cold comfort.
Zoya Ahmed, a senior at Maria Carrillo High School, said, “COVID-19 has caused so many changes that I was expecting the college admissions process to reflect that, but as an applicant and overwhelmed high school student it still comes with its surprises. I honestly think it’s such an ambivalent process because one day I’m extremely happy, and grateful about my choices, and the next I’m facing the lows of feeling judged and ranked, however much admissions committees deny it. It definitely isn’t the fairytale idealism that is usually portrayed, but it feels more like a tsunami of choices and future-deciding paths that you have to be the judge of. And this year, I think this feeling was even more exaggerated, after a year-long struggle of trying to maintain activities that you had been working on for the past three years, as well as taking on more. Overall, it’s been a mixed feelings game from the beginning of November to the beginning of May as college decisions come to a close.”
The mixed feelings so many students feel may be a result of the increased selectiveness of certain universities. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Ivy League school that had the lowest acceptance rate this year was Harvard University; it fell from its already low rate of 4.9% last year to a shocking 3.4%. Columbia University’s acceptance rate fell from 6.1% to 3.7%. Meanwhile, the local Mills College in Oakland announced plans to close. Already inaccessible colleges are becoming more outof- reach as less affluent colleges are threatened with potential closure.
The discussion concerning universities and their shrinking acceptance rates will endure, particularly as larger numbers of students apply each year. Prestige’s place in education will only continue to receive strict scrutiny, especially when so many students’ educational opportunities hang in the balance. But though the big picture may be changing, the emotions and hopes of young adults sitting in nervous anticipation each year when March rolls around won’t waver.
Further reading: www.washingtonpost. com/education/2021/04/07/ admit-rates-ivy-league-pandemic-test-optional; www.edsource.org/2021/mills-college-announces- plan-to-close-triggering-debateabout- other-schools-futures/651489.
MacKenzie Cramer will be attending UC Berkeley in the Fall.