The Infinite Ladder: Elite College Admissions

By Amanda Bertsch

This essay was originally written for a Tri-City Prep class. It represents only the views of the author and not necessarily those of the editorial board, Denobis staff, or Tri-City Prep. The Study Spot column, published bimonthly, aims to shine a light on issues surrounding education and offer assistance to students.

This spring, colleges across the country will be notifying high school seniors about their admissions decisions. Students will rejoice, eagerly accepting offers to their top choice schools or poring over generous financial aid statements. Those lucky few that receive acceptances from the most renown schools in the country will be especially grateful. These students are part of the 10-15% of high school graduates competing for spots at the most selective of schools, typically those that admit less than 30% of applicants (Deresiewicz 40). In the game that is college admissions, and by extension high school, these students have “won.” They earn bragging rights, not only for themselves, but for their parents and schools and communities as well. Applying to highly competitive schools has become a rite of passage for college-bound seniors, a tradition followed religiously by many, but it is hardly one without downfalls.

When it comes to applications for top schools, the news is rarely good. The Ivy League, eight top schools on the East Coast, sent 248,224 rejections to the class of 2016, for a rejection rate of 91.5% (“2020”). Assuming about 70% of these students paid the application fee (the others likely got financial aid fee waivers), the schools made more than 13 million dollars on rejected applications alone (“2020”). A survey found that the Harvard class of 2020, the same students who were accepted in 2016, had an average SAT score of 2234.6 out of 2400 (Sabate), placing them at the 99th percentile (“SAT”) of test-takers. There’s likely no practical difference between students at the 99th percentile and those at the 97th or even 95th percentile, where composite scores are barely 100 points lower (“SAT”). By setting such high standards, elite colleges are rejecting thousands upon thousands of qualified candidates every year, breeding resentment among the very students that submit their applications to the big-name schools.

This is not a new problem. A 1958 New York Times article about elite admissions noted: “there is a general feeling […] that the road from high school to college must be made less rocky, winding and confusing” (Buder). The author described students struggling to make college decisions, balancing differing systems and schedules in an attempt to make an informed decision (Buder). The year before, the Times published an article about Princeton raising its tuition in the second increase in two years (“Princeton”). At a total cost of $1,900 a year, Princeton was becoming unaffordable for the average American student, to the outrage of parents (“Princeton”). Princeton students affected by the 1958 tuition hike are now in their 70s. The current system is the child of a craze that began to pick up speed in the 1950s, as events such as those detailed in the Times became ever-more-commonplace.

Yet things continue to become drastically worse. Even with inflation, the cost of a year at  Princeton in 1958 is approximately $16,300 (“US”), or a quarter of the current Princeton cost of $63,690 (“Fees”). In 1950, just 66 years ago, the acceptance rate at Harvard was 77% (Deresiewicz 30). Today, it is 5.2% (“2020”). Along with these drastically lower numbers comes a rat-race to the top. No longer content with a few Advanced Placement (AP) classes or a handful of extracurricular activities, students are logging hundreds of hours of community service, dozens of AP classes and activities, and near-perfect test scores in a frantic bid to make it to the top (Deresiewicz). The result is a tradition, once representing a new phase of life and a few bragging rights, warped beyond recognition into a system that actively damages students.

The manipulations required to be a competitive applicant in the elite school system produce nothing short of malformed adults. In a series of interviews in the book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor, describes the effects of the elite system as malignant at best. He describes students who take 10 AP classes, join leadership clubs solely to put them on a resume, quit activities they enjoy in favor of honor societies or test prep. He describes an all-consuming fear of that B in a class or 600 on the SATs, “success understood as the absence of failure” (Deresiewicz 50) in such a way that anything less than perfect is crippling. He concludes: “we are robbing children of their childhood and teenagers of their adolescence. We have engineered a vast regimentation of youth” (Deresiewicz 58). And indeed, elite college applicants (and, by extension, the students that eventually attend such schools) are hardly recognizable as young adults. Accomplished, professional, and poised, such students seem to be the pinnacle of achievement. At 17 or 18 years old, as they fill out college applications, students are expected to have their lives planned perfectly, with clear goals for the future and a maturity far beyond what is natural.

This unrealistic ideal of the student is not a uniquely American one. The Indian system struggles with many of the same issues, only exacerbated by the use of one final examination to determine cutoffs for admission. Even among those who can afford to study for and sit the test, the acceptance rate for the elite Indian Institutes of Technology is minuscule at less than 2 percent (Najar). The New York Times writes that “American universities have now become ‘safety schools’ for increasingly stressed and traumatized Indian students and parents” (Najar). In India, where the emphasis on testing is even higher and admissions rates even more anorexic, the elite schools of America seem gentle and welcoming by comparison. This system is not far removed from the current path of American education. Rather, it is a grim foreshadowing of what will happen if the elite colleges of the West continue to trace a path toward less and less realistic expectations.

When students receive acceptances from top schools, they describe a number of emotions, from joy to simple relief (Deresiewicz). In many ways, they have completed an arduous journey, beginning as early as middle school. However, these students are not safe yet. In colleges that focus on building their prestige more than on educating students, facing pressure to live up to the standards set by their early achievements, students struggle with mental disorders and stress. Many find themselves stranded, with a lengthy resume but with no sense of true passion or joy in life. Students that make it to the elite schools are the winners of the American system, but the question remains: how much do they lose along the way?



Works Cited

“2020 Ivy League Admissions Statistics.” Ivy Coach, Accessed 24 October 2016.

Buder, Leonard. “Colleges Pick Freshmen; Method is Vexing to both.” The New York Times (1923-Current file), Proquest, New York, N.Y., 1958.

“Fees and Payment Options.” Princeton University, 2015, Accessed 24 October 2016.

Najar, Nina. “Squeezed Out in India, Students Turn to U.S.” The New York Times, 13 October 2011, Accessed 26 October 2016.

“Princeton Adds $200 to Tuition.” The New York Times (1923-Current file), Proquest, New York, N.Y., 1957.

Sabate, Ignacio. “Meet the Class of 2020.” The Harvard Crimson, Accessed 25 October 2016.

“SAT Percentile Ranks for Males, Females, and Total Group.” College Board, 2014, Accessed 25 October 2016.

“US Inflation Calculator.” Coin News Media Group, 2015, Accessed 25 October 2016.

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