This article is not meant to criticize the way colleges admit students; they play with the hands they are dealt. However, the process built around college admissions is abysmal, plagued with exploitation, disunification, and it cultivates a toxic environment for high school students.
College Board is the major perpetrator of this exploitation. The company has a virtual monopoly on standardized testing and, in many high schools, is the only way that you can show to colleges that you are prepared for them. You have to pay $93 per exam in order to take a test that does not accurately represent the college curriculum you will be taking.
AP Physics 1, for example, has to be taught in terms of the AP curriculum in order to get a good AP score. If you teach physics in terms of real-world application, then you are put at an extreme disadvantage when taking the AP test.
AP courses have also brought pressure to take courses you don’t want to take. An engineering student should not be pressured into taking an AP Human Geography course if they are not interested in it. Nevertheless, College Board has built up a culture promoting the more classes the better, no matter whether it is of interest to you or not. They spread the idea that if you don’t take all the AP classes offered at your school, then you may lose out on your chance of attending your dream college, which can easily lead to a deterioration in student health.
On top of advocating for people to take as many AP classes as possible, College Board also provides a standardized test that has become a keystone in the admissions process: the infamous SAT. After the pandemic, this test has been made test-optional for many universities and test-blind for a small few (notably the UC and Cal States). However, prior to this, it was mandatory to take an SAT (or ACT) to apply to virtually any competitive schools.
Keep in mind, this test was originally created by Carl Brigham, who made the test purposefully biased toward Caucasians and stated that, “The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the Negro.” Brigham created the test for his eugenicist philosophy, planning to use the test to determine who is genetically superior and who should be selected for planned breeding and racial improvement.
Now they use this same (slightly modified) SAT to determine whether you are ‘smart’ enough to get into a good college. And this idea that a person with a higher SAT score is smarter than someone with a lower one is ridiculous. The test is more about learning how to take the test and memorizing the types of questions that will be asked than actually knowing the content — many learned the material in the SAT in 7th or 8th grade. For the math section, it comes down to the memorization of formulas and the type of calculator you use, and the SAT uses the same type of questions every year.
The tests, in no way, prepare students for the real-world and college. They are completely arbitrary and are favored toward the wealthy, who have the resources to pay for tutoring services, which has been turned into a multi-billion dollar business featuring thousand-dollar private tutors and a virtually endless amount of prep books, so their children know the strategies to get a good score on the SAT.
And SAT scores play a big role in one of the worst parts of the college admissions process: college rankings. The flagship of these rankings sites is US News, which releases its list every year. This phenomenon has resulted in colleges like Northeastern — a commuter school that turned into a prestigious university by focusing on statistics important to US News — to play the ‘game’ of college rankings.
In an effort to climb these rankings, some colleges, like the Ivy League’s Columbia University, manipulate their data to gain a higher ranking. The system is easily exploited and is majorly flawed in that it tries to create a definitive list for the best colleges. There is no ‘best’ college; there are so many different preferences that vary from person to person, making it essentially impossible to make a blanket list.
For the many students and parents that look to go to a ‘top 20’ school, it is increasingly difficult to do so. In the past ten years (Class of 2015 to Class of 2025) Princeton’s applicant pool has increased by over 10,000, but the amount of people accepted has decreased from 2,282 to 1,498 students. The amount of people able to become admitted into the ‘top 20’ schools has not changed, but the applicant pool has drastically.
This drastic increase in the applicant pool has resulted in people needing to stand out even more than years prior. Gone are the days when you were able to be accepted to a prestigious school while being a president of a club at your school. You are now expected to be valedictorian, president of twenty-three clubs, a Division I athlete, have research experience, and run a million-dollar business on the side. And then maybe you will get in.
And the application process itself has a completely different problem: the disunification of it. There are so many different application portals (the CommonApp, the UC App, the Coalition Application, CCCapply, SUNY portal, Cal State Apply, MIT’s own application portal, etc.) that make you submit the same information, making the process harder for students to apply to the schools they want to and making students spend extra time that could be spent making their applications better.
Schools should have a unified, (possibly federally-created) application portal for this. Schools have so many different applications because they are looking to ask specific questions, and they feel the other portals ask too many, too little, or the wrong questions.
A unified application portal would allow students to input their information (grades, extracurriculars, test scores, etc.) into only one application and allow the colleges to ask as many questions as they want to.
This is definitely easier said than done, though. Colleges are slow to change, with many only becoming test-optional because of a worldwide pandemic, and a unified application system would be extremely tough to implement because of this. Most schools use the CommonApp today, which allows students to apply to a large majority of colleges in the US, but it is not configurable enough for community colleges to use it, and the UC schools do not want to use the Common Applications given prompts.
Even if schools can’t find common ground, one big step to mending the toxic environment of admissions would be to remove standardized tests from the application process. Standardized tests are arbitrary, promote hyper-competitive atmospheres, and benefit only the multi-billion dollar companies that administer them.