The College Process: the Good, the Bad, and the Uncomfortable


Let’s just admit it: the college process is weird. It’s scary and hard to navigate, both for people going through it and for those witnessing it from afar. I remember how during my junior year I desperately wanted to know where my senior friends were applying, but I was simultaneously afraid of offending them with the question. The only time I ever broached the subject, I prefaced my question with about a thousand versions of “I know you might not want to talk about this, and tell me if I’m pushing any limits, but…”  The senior I asked was really nice about explaining her application choices to me, and she patiently answered my frantic questions about the difference between Early Decision and Early Application. As a junior, I felt like I was teetering on the edge of a world I knew very little about—a world I was about to plunge into—and I was desperately clinging to the thoughts and experiences of others. As the year progressed, whenever I heard which school a senior was going to, I would file the information away into my growing vault of college data that I jealously hoarded. It didn’t help that these tidbits of information were usually whispered—traded like gold nuggets between those who were only witnessing the mysteries of college acceptance. We knew that, sooner than we wanted to believe, we would have to be thinking about Common App essays and CSS profiles, so we devoured every bit of advice we could get.

What I’m saying is—I get it. I understand the desire to interrogate seniors about their every college move, and I know that these questions come from a place of genuine curiosity. However, as a senior, I now know what it’s like to be on the other side of these questions. And if I were to give advice to any juniors (and underclassmen, too), I’d recommend trying to bring up college with only the seniors you know really well. Think of this college questioning as asking them what grades they’re getting in their classes, or asking them if they think they’re smart or stupid.

Here’s the thing, though: it shouldn’t have to be that way. I give the advice above because, in my experience, that’s generally how people view the college question. People see which colleges they’re applying to as a value judgement, when, in reality, there are innumerable factors that go into the application process, and very few of them have to do with your academic prowess. Most colleges look at extracurricular and community service activities. They take a “holistic” approach and want to get a full, three-dimensional picture of applicants. However, there are still lots of factors that students can’t control. Where you apply to college can be dictated by financial circumstances or family legacy: two things completely out of the hands of those applying. These two factors, as well as other non-academic circumstances, aren’t at all indicative of a students “value.” When you think about it, it’s ridiculous that we take college to mean so much, when there are so many variables at play.

I think we’re frightened of the judgement of others. That’s why when someone approaches us and asks the Big Question, there’s a beat before we respond; we’re trying to figure out how to best answer the question. This deliberation is ridiculous because it’s not a hard question to answer, but there’s a layer of vulnerability in telling someone where you want to go to college, especially if we see where we’re applying to college as a value judgement of our success. Even up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know which schools some of my closest friends were applying early to. I didn’t want to ask because I was afraid of making them uncomfortable. It felt like an awkward question to ask.

This awkwardness isn’t felt only by those who are ashamed of where they’re applying to college. I have a friend who’s applying early to Harvard but told me she felt uncomfortable about telling anyone. She said that there are two options when you tell people you’re applying early to Harvard: either people think you’re full of yourself, or they think you’re utterly delusional.

The pervasive weirdness of the college process affects everyone applying because the issue is a cultural mindset. Beyond a certain threshold, what college you’re applying to—and what college you eventually get into—has very little to do with your academic success. So the question “what school are you applying to?” shouldn’t be synonymous with “how smart are you”. We need to acknowledge the complexity of the process and understand that it’s not a black and white issue. However, until our society, or at least our student body, can learn to let go of these connotations, it’s best to avoid asking a senior where they’re looking.

Milton Paper