Being in college, it’s easy to forget what life is like for a student in a competitive high school environment. When I was home for Thanksgiving break, I strolled through the emptying halls of my town’s high school at the end of the school day and reminisced about the fun times that led to friendships, but I realized it was really the college-focused environment that caused us to bond over our shared stress.
In the library, I saw frazzled juniors studying for their SATs and anxious seniors meticulously editing their college essays, illustrating what Eric Hoover considers to be the unfair and stressful college admissions process. Much like actors auditioning for a show, applicants are persuasive, impressive, and a little nervous, and directors often don’t know what makes the perfect cast until they see it in front of them.
In a 2015 interview, Dean of Yale Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan ‘03 stated that the admissions office “[doesn’t] have any specific formula for selecting students.” Yale, like many other elite colleges, reviews applications through a “holistic” process that not only values high test scores and grades in a rigorous curriculum but also considers situational factors, the potential in a college setting, and other unquantifiable achievements.
To “holistic” reviewers, applicants are judged for who they are as people rather than how they scored on their standardized tests and high school exams. Many find this reassuring; after all, everyone likes to think we’re good people who deserve careful consideration. The process allows admissions committees to contextualize the performance of disadvantaged students who may not have the same access to fancy extracurriculars and the academic help of their affluent peers and tutors. And for the hopeful students who believe they belong at an elite institution, the process seemingly gives them a second shot, despite low grades and scores that may suggest otherwise.
However, “holistic” admissions offer false hope to those who never had a chance at admission in the first place. The process creates an illusion that the admissions committee provides a comprehensive review of both academic and personal qualities when, in reality, the “holistic” review process is a way for college admissions offices to be entirely subjective when choosing their freshman class.
This leaves room for star athletes, musical prodigies, the rich and famous, and even the occasional writer of a uniquely compelling personal statement. It may or may not be fairer than using numerical scores to select students, but it’s certainly more destructive to the morale of high schoolers—holistic acceptance and rejection is a personal matter.
But the high schoolers afraid of thin envelopes from their colleges of choice are more worried over what the rejection means than the rejection itself. When Michael Campbell was a senior in high school in 2010, he wrote of his relatable “struggle to disassociate an admissions rejection from the rejection of [him] as a person.” When colleges evaluate “you as a person,” a rejection symbolizes personal inadequacies and even moral inferiorities.
Rest assured, though: the “holistic” process is holistic in name only. Applicants submit their grades, standardized test scores, and an essay or two, depending on the college’s specific application. They request letters of recommendation from trusted teachers and show off their array of various accolades and extracurriculars on a résumé. Even with the addition of a few zany supplemental essays, college admissions officers cannot make a judgment on the “whole” of the applicant as the term “holistic” suggests. It’s simply not possible given the time constraints and volume of applications that colleges now receive.
So, the college application process is not really about you. At least, it is not about your character, your unique strengths, and weaknesses, or even about the grueling past years you spent in high school.
You are not evaluated on the nuance of your character, your mannerisms, or your deeply held convictions. If that were the case, it would be highly inappropriate and not at all indicative of future success or academic abilities. Really, the admissions panel is evaluating how you present yourself. Don’t take it personally.