Season for college stress: a senior’s perspective


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Editor-in-Chief Vincent Tanforan shares insights about college application process as a source of stress for many seniors as the first semester comes to a close.

Vincent Tanforan, Editor-in-Chief

With UC and early Common App deadlines fast approaching, Northgate’s class of 2023 is growing increasingly stressed. In any given class, seniors can be heard debating their college lists, lamenting the essays they have to write, and counting down the days until application  deadlines. As Nov. 30 approaches, the more this nervous energy will grow until it is completely inescapable. 

Resisting the urge to stress over college is a nigh-on-impossible task, even when I am already certain of my future plans. One person starts bemoaning the applications they have to complete, then others join in the conversation, simultaneously encouraging and depressing each other in an endless cycle. The gears start turning in nearly every senior’s head, the anxious thoughts appear, and the process has begun. What am I doing about college? Am I doing the right thing? What even is the right thing?

These questions are born from aimless worry and have no correct answers, but I can offer my conclusion to another question that has been building in my mind for the past year: How healthy is the panic about college admissions?

The idea first entered my mind at the end of my sophomore year that college was something I needed to be thinking about, if only because my parents and peers thought the same. One of my first orders of business was to get more involved in extracurricular activities, a task that turned out to be harder than it looked. If you asked me, while scrolling through outdated web pages of volunteer opportunities gardening and cleaning up litter, whether I had any real interest in gardening or cleaning up litter, the answer would have been a resounding no. 

Or, more likely, “just for college”-  the familiar refrain of so many students looking to build their high school résumés. This one phrase explains what I see as one of the major flaws of the way our culture stresses the necessity of getting into college, and a prestigious college at that, for high schoolers. 

In the realm of extracurriculars, the pressure to achieve the most can do as much harm as it does good. One upside of college’s prioritization of extracurricular activities is that it pushes students to give back to the community when they might not otherwise do so. However, this can quickly become another pressure on students, encouraging teenagers to stretch themselves too thin over activities that they may not truly want to participate in. “For college,” is the same phrase I’ve heard my classmates use to explain why they keep playing sports or doing activities that they can find no stronger reason for continuing. 

Senior year is a lot to keep up with. For the students who take multiple APs, work, and have numerous extracurricular activities, even more so. As one of those people, I often feel like I’m doing a balancing act between all of my commitments, not to mention keeping up with my social life. Some nights I go home to do homework nonstop, shuttle off to volunteer, do more homework, sleep, and wake up to do it all again. Yet I’m one of those same people who constantly berate themselves about not doing enough for college. At what point does it become unreasonable to prioritize hypothetical acceptance into a college over my own well-being? 

My answer: always. 

There is never a moment or situation in which college should outweigh one’s own wants and needs. Acceptance letters don’t make anyone more worthy as a human being. No fundamental superiority is wielded by the students who get into top colleges over those who go to community colleges or no college at all. The real issue is that we have been given the message, directly or discreetly, that it does.

The mass anxiety over college acceptance serves to pit each student against each other as potential competition in a way that is ultimately detrimental. This past year, I found myself becoming desperate to set myself apart from my classmates and potential competitors in the college rat race. Yet this whole mentality undermines what schools and colleges purport to be encouraging: community. 

I believe the greatest failure of the way the college application process is highlighted in school, at home, and in our culture at large lies in how it has been presented to students as the end goal rather than the beginning of something entirely new. From the way high schoolers talk about college, it sounds like their fates will be sealed the second they step onto their chosen campus. It’s all about getting in, not about how someone might actually thrive at a certain campus. 

This can be traced back to the societal emphasis on prestigious colleges being the only measure of success in life. Many students in families where going to college is the norm have the expectation of going to a big-name school like an Ivy League or UC placed upon them as soon as they start high school, or even earlier. This elitist worldview serves to downplay the positive side of smaller schools and community colleges in favor of reputation. How many of the students at these high-ranking institutions would actually feel more fulfilled at other schools, but don’t know it because everyone around them kept pushing the idea of prestige?

College is the first time when most teenagers get to choose where they live, what they study, and what career they pursue. The magnitude of these choices can be daunting, but it is also an amazing opportunity. When choosing a college, students should prioritize which schools have the programs they want to take and the communities they can best see themselves in, rather than numbers from the U.S. News and World Report that don’t tell the whole story. 

The real benefits of learning and socializing in high school get thrown to the wayside when it is all seen as a means to one all-consuming end: getting into college. 

As I move forward in this journey, I hope to keep my mind open and unclouded by the mounting pressures of the college application process. This time of our lives should be about self-discovery and new beginnings, not an endless spiral of indecision and anxiety.