Why the US College Admissions Process is Broken

Every single day I feel relieved that we found out about college in Europe at the beginning of our son Sam’s high school experience. As I’ve said before, the college admissions process in this country is something that bothers me just as much-if not more than-the problem of the outrageous cost of college

Since our kids will eventually go to college in Europe, our family will avoid the frantic aspects of college preparation throughout high school. Instead of going to financial aid workshops or driving kids to and from SAT prep classes, my evenings can be spent in my sweats on the couch with a glass of wine. Sam will have a manageable workload that will allow him free time to pursue his own interests, spend time with friends, participate in family events, have time to relax (aka play video games) and get adequate sleep each night. I will not feel the need to micromanage or monitor homework compliance. 

Sam will know it’s ok to make mistakes and will be able to learn from them. Sound like Utopia? It’s a real option since choosing college in Europe allows parents and kids to opt out of the admissions madness that goes on in this country.

The next few blogs will focus on what I’ve learned while reading Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite by William Deresiewicz. This week I’ll look at the impact the admissions process has on high school students and the difference for students who choose to apply to European schools.

The endless pursuit of gold stars.

Excellent Sheep paints a picture of the US college admissions process and what it is doing to the lives of high school students and their parents. Deresiewicz talks about how, for high school students, “the purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars. Hence the relentless extracurricular busy-ness, the neglect of leaning as an end in itself, the inability to imagine doing something that you can’t put on your resume. Hence the constant sense of competition”. He notes the “way of life organized around the production of measurable virtue in children. 

Measurable, here, means capable of showing up on a college application.” So, other than kids being busy, what is truly wrong with this process? One problem is that kids aren’t able to find their passions in life. They’re too busy for such a frivolous goal! Deresiewicz notes that the level of activity leaves teens “no time and no tools to figure out what they want out of life or even out of college. Questions of purpose and passion were not on the syllabus”. He says that “young people are not trained to pay attention to the things they feel connected to”.

You are never enough.

I think a huge problem is that there is no way that kids can achieve enough. The goal is to be the best, and since the admissions process looks at so many different components of students’ lives, there will always be someone who is better in one of the areas. Deresiewicz says, “The only point of having more is having more than everybody else. Nobody needed 20,000 atomic warheads until the other side had 19,000. Nobody needs eleven extracurriculars either-what purpose does having them actually serve, unless the other guy has ten?” This ‘more is better’ mentality is so engrained into our society, though. I was recently chatting with a neighbor who mentioned that her son, a rising junior in high school, will be taking 5 AP classes next year. When I asked why he was planning to do this, I was told that it was because he had friends who had done it. Even if he graduates with 11 AP course and perfect grades, there will be someone else who has more sports, more clubs, more community service, better SAT scores or a better essay. It’s simply never enough.

European colleges are different.

Let’s contrast this with the European admissions process. At most schools, the admissions process is less competitive. There is a set of published criteria and if you meet them, and there is room in the program, you are admitted. Rolling admissions is often used, which means students are being compared to the set criteria, as opposed to other applicants. 

Even in the schools that have more competitive admissions, the procedures are transparent. Alto University’s International Business program makes admission decisions based 100% on SAT scores. Mediocre grades? Doesn’t matter. No sports? That’s fine. Total transparency. At Sciences Po, kids who make it to the final round of admissions are invited to an interview in which they are given an article about a current event and have 30 minutes to prepare a structured analysis, which is then presented to an admissions panel. This is a true assessment of critical thought, not arbitrary achievements.

How to actually enjoy high school.

So what’s different in our lives, since we will be opting out of the US admissions process? Sam will take AP courses since he is interested in schools in the Netherlands, where American students need to have 4 AP courses with scores of 3 or higher (unless he gets an IB diploma). However, there is no advantage given to those who get a 5 over a 3 on the tests or have 6 AP’s courses over 4 courses. This takes a lot of stress out of the process! Sam isn’t looking at any schools right now that require SATs or ACTs. He will still take them to keep his options open but it doesn’t matter if his score is better than other applicants as long as it meets the criteria. Thus, we don’t need to worry about extra time in a classroom (and cost) taking a prep course for the test.

Don't let them stop you from finding what makes you happy.

Just as importantly, this different mindset allows Sam time to explore his interests. He can try things out without feeling like he needs to commit to them for the duration of his high school career in order to look good on college applications. He went to a camp this summer to spend two weeks kayaking along the outer banks of North Carolina. Sam enjoyed the experience without feeling pressured to make it a hobby when he returned home. 

What he does love is learning about, and thinking about, the conflicts in the Middle East. We get him books he requests and he has long talks with his grandfather about the current issues. He tried Model UN (which would be a way to “commodify” the interest) in middle school and isn’t interested in participating in high school. That’s totally fine. What is important is that he is connecting to something and developing passions. We are finding that in doing so he is developing goals based on those passions. He wants to be proficient in French and Arabic by the time he graduates high school. Arabic is a hard language, but Sam doesn’t have to be afraid of taking academic risks, since the European admissions system allows for a margin of error not provided by the US system. These classes are now more meaningful since he is connected to them.

There's something better out there.

I am hopeful that there will be some sort of reform around higher education that involves the hyper-competitive admissions process, but since Sam is 15, we can’t wait any longer. I am thrilled that we have the options in Europe that allow us to reject the lifestyle required by US college admissions process. If you are interested in learning whether this would be a good option for you, we can help.

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