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The truth about college admissions

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As a once university admissions-obsessed college confidential stalker, I am beyond intrigued by the intricacies of the college admissions process. I still find myself helplessly amused by the typical “chance me” posts on Reddit threads and the infamous YouTube college decision reaction videos. I watch them like they are Netflix shows: it’s a rabbit hole I haven’t been able to escape since my own admissions process in high school. America has grown into a nation obsessed with the glory of elite universities, and everyone wants one of those universities’ names or logos on their LinkedIn profile. We have grown up learning our worth is equal to our grades, our activities, our standardized test scores, our admissions decisions, and our school’s names. We sit at laptop desks and ask random internet strangers to tell us if they think we’ll gain admission to selective universities. Did we create this culture of admissions toxicity, or are we a result of it?

The truth is that in a way, we are both. Comparing trends from elite colleges in 2007 and 2019 shows how a significant increase in Common Applications have allowed selective schools to become far more selective than ever before. According to IvyWise, Carnegie Mellon’s 2007 acceptance rate of 27.9 percent differs significantly from its 2019 acceptance rate of 15.4 percent. Similar trends are seen at universities like Cornell University, with a 2007 acceptance rate of 21.4 percent compared to a 2019 acceptance rate of 10.7 percent, and the University of Chicago, with a 2007 acceptance rate of 34.9 percent compared to a 2019 acceptance rate of 6.2 percent. From these statistics, we see an overarching trend towards more applications for roughly the same number of spots in a graduating class, resulting in a lower acceptance rate for applicants each year.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, universities across the country have chosen to go test-optional, meaning applicants can decide whether or not they want to submit standardized test scores in their applications. The debate over whether universities should implement test-optional policies has been growing for years, but pressure from students who have been unable to take standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT have forced colleges to implement test-optional policies for the 2021-2022 and even the 2022-2023 application season. Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Ed writes “Through Feb. 15, only 44 percent of people using the Common Application submitted SAT or ACT scores. Last year's total was 77 percent.” Jaschik explains that because there are less requirements to apply to universities and more time to write supplemental essays during the pandemic, the average number of universities students have applied to this year has significantly increased. On the other end, Leslie Cornfeld, founder and CEO of the National Education Equity Lab, explains, "I think we have known for quite some time that standardized tests like the ACT and SAT can mask talent in the Black and Latino communities,” continuing, "It is critical that we think about alternatives to the SAT and the ACT in this country." While some specific universities in the United States have been test-optional in previous years, there has never been so much momentum for a nationwide movement striving to break away from standardized testing as a barrier to entry.

The questions now become: do we take this national opportunity to reform a severely broken college application system? Should test-optional admissions remain, and if so, will this fix a root problem or exacerbate another one? If schools are to remain test-optional, could an overreliance on GPA provide similar problems with inconsistency and a disadvantage to marginalized students? The simple answer is that, while we may not know the long-term effects of going test-optional on a national scale, it is a step in the right direction towards ensuring a more equitable and inclusive college application process. Not only will it allow more students a fair chance to gain admission into selective universities, but it will also alleviate stress from high school students balancing standardized testing preparation alongside schoolwork, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, internships, and other commitments. Instead of asking how students can stop feeding into this toxicity by posting “chance me” questions on college confidential, Reddit, and YouTube, we must evaluate the admissions considerations of individual universities, urging them to provide transparency, support, and resources for applicants during the admissions season. This is how we can end the cycle of admissions toxicity.