In less than a week, hundreds of high school students will descend upon campus for Bulldog Days, eager to learn about how Yale could shape their lives over the next four years. Yet it is likely that Yale has already shaped the lives of many Bulldog Days attendees, beginning long before they even applied — because of how the University’s admissions process influences the choices that many affluent high school students make.
It is well known that the college admissions process gets a little bit more insane every year for the American upper-middle class. It is now commonplace for high school students to apply to over 10 schools, and for some to try for as many as 20 or 30. Some independent college counselors now charge over $40,000 a student, an amount that fearful, upper-class parents are willing to fork over in exchange for a better shot for their children at the Ivy League.
Yet nowhere is the growing insanity of the college admissions process more apparent than in the number of high school students who literally organize their lives around the quest to get into a top university. Many Bulldog Days attendees will have spent years planning how to get into Yale: what subjects to study, which activities to join and how to spend their free time. Because of this, Yale’s application process and admissions criteria have far-reaching effects, far beyond the makeup of the Class of 2019. The way that Yale evaluates high school students influences the lives they lead, the habits that they develop and the identities that they form.
What sorts of pursuits does a Yale applicant learn to value? He sees that the application section for extracurricular activities has 10 spots, and learns to value doing as many things as possible. He realizes that there’s a limit of 150 characters for describing each activity, and learns to value doing things that look good. He knows that he’ll need a stellar academic record to be accepted, and learns to value sleepless nights and caffeine. He hears that top universities look for students who have demonstrated leadership, and learns that leadership is a credential that one lists on a form rather than the process of convincing people to follow one’s visions. He writes one personal statement after another, and learns to treat his emotional life as a thing to be packaged into 500-word narratives.
High school is a time when we form our identities and take on responsibilities, yet many of America’s brightest high school students spend their time scrambling from one activity to another, without time for introspection or self-care. When they finally apply to colleges, they are encouraged to write about things that are meaningful to them, yet many have been taught to care about achievement and status above all else. By the time that they arrive at Yale as freshmen, some are entirely burnt out, and some ready to repeat the cycle of overachievement and meaningless leadership positions all over again.
None of these problems are, strictly speaking, Yale’s fault. The University has always been clear that its admissions decisions are based on holistic criteria, and it is clear that high school students who drive themselves crazy trying to get into Yale are misunderstanding the admissions process in one way or another. But Yale considers itself a leader among universities, and is at least partially responsible when students across the country learn the wrong lessons from the admissions process. The Admissions Office should forcefully clarify to prospective applicants that overachievement and empty credentials are no way to spend their time in high school.
As loyal readers of this column know, I trust Yale’s administration a great deal: I believe they’ve steered this University well for the past 20 years and are generally responsive to student concerns. But I have much less trust in the Admissions Office — not necessarily because they make bad decisions about who to admit, but because they participate in a system that ruins high school for so many American teenagers.
This is why I was one of the first undergraduates to submit a FERPA request to review my admissions records, and why I was so disappointed when the Admissions Office announced recently that it would be deleting the records in question to prevent more students from viewing what application readers had to say about them. The standard argument for the Admissions Office’s high level of secrecy is that, if high school students were fully aware of the criteria Yale uses to judge applicants, they’d be able to game the admissions process. But, frankly, students are already gaming the admissions process — by short-changing their own high school experiences. Some additional transparency could force the Admissions Office to confront the actions it incentivizes and the values it promotes among America’s high school students and Yale’s future undergraduates.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .