The Torture Of College Application Season: Is It Worth It??

The college application process ain’t what it used to be. At least, it’s not what it was when I was first applying back in 1991. I knew this going in to the process with my oldest child applying last fall, but I didn’t realize exactly how competitive and how much of a cheating game it had become. I’ve been paying enough attention to know that colleges had been getting more and more competitive over the past five to eight years. But I quickly found out that even more recently, as more research has been released and more books on the subject published, many colleges have buckled down even more harshly with regard to admissions, to almost ridiculous proportions, prompting many current college and high school students to ask, “is it even worth it?” 

Not all of my readers know this, but I do have 2 other cisgender teenage kids in addition to my transgender tween. I don’t write about them often, as they are mostly happy leading quiet lives and staying out of the spotlight. But this post is about my oldest son. I’ll be writing one in the near future for my second born, middle, beautiful-inside-and-out daughter who just turned 16. But this one is for Jack. 

I’m writing this post in the aftermath of staring down yet another semi-rejection college admissions letter for my oldest son Jack, who is 17, a high school senior, with a (nearly) full-time extra-curricular job, and a full senior AP course load. He’s currently holding a 4.4 GPA (up from a 4.367 in October), and it’s expected to be possibly higher than 4.4 when he graduates in two months (pending final exams). He got above average scores on his ACT/SAT tests the first time he took them with no prep whatsoever, and even higher scores the second time. Learning has always come easy for him. Not just academically, but whatever he sets his mind to, whether it’s teaching himself to draw cartoons, create and animate CGI, or build his own gaming computer from scratch, nothing is off-limits for his mind to handle. 

At age 8 he began playing violin (learning to pluck, only) at his A.G. magnet elementary school. He was so excited to go back the following year to earn his bow and play with the elementary school orchestra. He was identified that same year for AG (academically gifted) services in public school and began receiving A.G. differentiation the next year in 4th grade. Unfortunately, the strings program was simultaneously cut from his school, so he never got his bow. We didn’t have money to buy him a violin or to sign up for private lessons; we had depended upon the public school where we elected to send him to provide this exposure. Having it ripped away was heartbreaking. 

Fortunately he was able to get into an AG arts magnet middle school, where he picked the violin right back up and played all three years. By 8th grade, his orchestra teacher recommended him for a selective, highly competitive, free scholarship award for private violin lessons. She believed in him and thought he had the talent – he just needed the push that private lessons would challenge him with. And with that, we gratefully accepted and he began attending private violin lessons – on full scholarship – at the home of a teacher with prestigious credentials and a fee I’m sure we never would’ve been able to afford. 

Jack flourished in just a few months under this teacher. This teacher and violinist had performed with Sir George Solti in the Solti Orchestral Project at Carnegie Hall. He had served as concertmaster with the New World Symphony and became a member of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, He had been Assistant Concertmaster of the Stockton Symphony, and a member of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra & Opera Pacific Orchestras in California. In Virginia he was a member of the Richmond Symphony and the Virginia Symphony, and in North Carolina he joined the NC Symphony as Assistant Principal Second Violin, where he was also frequently featured as a soloist for several concerts. The first time we heard Jack play solo in recital, I cried. The progress in such a short time was unbelievable.

By high school Jack had grown tired of violin practice, and additionally, he’d entered ninth grade with the mindset of “academics first.” In his sophomore year he switched over to playing guitar, and completely taught himself how to play after one of his best friends loaned him his guitar for a while to practice. Now, music is more of his creative outlet, something he does when there’s spare time. But the ability to read music and foundational skills are all there if he ever decides to go further with music.

He has excelled academically and artistically all throughout his school career, in all areas, excepting the one or two occasional “Ds” he got on interims or report cards, usually for being unorganized and not turning in work. In his part-time job he has also excelled, having been the youngest recipient of a prestigious service excellence award in a company that is dedicated to and prides itself on excellent customer service. In other words, all the employees are excellent. Nothing less than that is tolerated. So to win this award for this company is kind of a big deal.

He has also received a couple of merit-based raises at his job, and was recommended for (and placed into) a low-level management-type position at age 17, which increased his work load and responsibilities. Jack is that employee who the store knows they can call on Christmas morning if there’s a no-show, and he will come in. Dependability is his middle name. During the summer when no employees wanted one of the 6am opening shifts, he took it on without hesitation. What 17-year-old kid does this on their summer break, when they have a girlfriend and a social life, and can SLEEP IN? 

How he manages to balance a daily schedule of rigorous college placement level courses, plus a biomedical technology cluster he committed to take throughout four years of high school, a social life, video gaming, a girlfriend, and a part-time job is beyond me. In my day, if you’d accomplished so much by this point, you would’ve been considered a “shoe-in” at even some of the more competitive colleges and universities. Not Harvard or Yale, but certainly the local, state universities.

Yet, in April of 2018, he still hasn’t been accepted into his top choice – a state university. 

He hasn’t been *exactly* rejected, either. 

His first application to one our our State Universities was submitted back in October for what is known as “early decision.” Meaning the college would review your application early and give you an early answer (by January) so you could rest-assured whether or not you had a spot at your top choice while you awaited letters from other colleges.

Now, I will admit that the school he applied to within the university is extremely, ridiculously, ostentatiously competitive – simply because of its nature. It’s the School of Engineering, and this particular university is world-renowned for being a top research university in the U.S. recognized for groundbreaking science, engineering, and technology research. When we did our spring tour around this time last year, the large lecture hall was standing room only; the majority of the hopeful applicants had traveled from as far away as China, India, and South Korea. For perhaps the first time in my life, my family was the obvious minority in the room.

I didn’t know it, but apparently this is a thing: traveling from China/India/South Korea, etc. to the United States for a month-long excursion, whereby your family only scouts colleges and universities, ranging in location from the east coast to the west coast. A literal educational family field trip. (And I thought it was a big deal that I took a half-day off work, unpaid, to be present for this school tour.) 

After the school tour, his decision was solidified. When my son told me he wanted to apply to only this particular school within the university, I had to do that difficult, delicate parent dance, where you try to caution your child against a potential bad decision, while simultaneously not breaking their hopeful spirit. Some lessons just have to be learned the hard way. 

Another thing this particular school is doing this year (that they just apparently started for next year) is that all applicants must declare their major on the college application. ON THE APPLICATION. THAT THEY FILL OUT DURING THE FIRST QUARTER OF THEIR SENIOR YEAR IN HIGH SCHOOL… What kind of a 17-year-old is ready to declare their major at a college they haven’t studied at yet? What kind of 17-year-old is absolutely positive what they’d like to do for the rest of their life? That’s how competitive it has become; this is what they’re asking of our children.

At first glance, it seems they only want to admit students who have been essentially killing their entire life to be the top-ranking student in their class, along with being SGA president, volunteering at both an animal shelter and a retirement home, spending their summers as missionaries in Malta, being president of every existing club on campus, organizing new clubs and projects, working full time, making straight A’s since kindergarten, playing first chair in the State Symphony, coaching little league soccer on Saturdays, tutoring peers in math for free, and auditing night classes at the local University “for fun” in their “spare time.” 


The first letter from the University came in January. Although I shouldn’t say “letter,” as everything is done online now. The first response came via a college-specific email account that all potential students must create and use for all correspondence. It wasn’t a yes, but it also wasn’t a no. Jack had been placed on “deferred” status, meaning he’d go into the general pool of applicants to be considered during final review in March. The correspondence stated: 

“We have received over 29,000 applications for the 4,500 spaces available in the Fall 2018 freshman class. When we review applications, we find some applicants with very strong credentials who are admitted, others who aren’t competitive enough for admission, and a large number that may benefit from the opportunity to provide improved fall grades and test scores who are deferred until final review in March.”

During that time, my son did everything he needed to do, including sending along any improved and/or updated information regarding awards and other criteria. After talking around, we found out deferral was fairly common. For those friends of his who did get accepted during the early decision process, he asked, “How did you do it?” and was told “I applied to the school of education/business/agriculture, etc.,” because those schools at this university receive the lowest number of applicants and offer the highest rates of admission. When my son asked “is that what you really want to do?” They’d answer, “Hell no. But that’s how I could get in. I’ll worry about changing my major later.” 

After hearing this, I wondered, “where the hell is the parenting guide that teaches us how to cheat the system?”

Then in March came the “final” decision. Another email that stated neither a definitive yes or no, but rather, a “wait list” status. According to the school’s letter:

“As a result of the tremendous academic competition for admission to the University, you are being placed on the wait list for the fall semester and a final decision on your application will be made by June 15. Unfortunately we are unable to admit all of the well qualified students who apply but will consider you for admission if additional space in the freshman class is available after May 1, the enrollment confirmation deadline. Please do not consider our decision to be a negative evaluation of your academic credentials, but rather a reflection of the competition that applicants face in applying to __ University. While we cannot predict how many applicants may be admitted from the wait list this year, last year we were able to offer admission to less than 1 percent of the 2,479 students on the wait list.”

Less than 1%. That’s the odds. 

But as I started talking to more coworkers with college-aged students, and just other people in general (whether college students or parents with college students), I started hearing a pattern. Several folks said their kids opted to go to our local community colleges to get their core classes out of the way, then transferring to the State or private colleges. Others were requiring their kids to take at least two years off of school before going to college, to work, travel, and figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. And still others, who had kids going to college the traditional way – many of them either had kids who dropped out, flunked out, they couldn’t afford it any longer, or their kids decided on their own that they just weren’t ready. 

I guess it all finally clicked because it’s personal now, but over the past few years I’ve been reading about how more and more kids are finding non-traditional ways to higher education and careers. If you want a steady job that’ll support a family, gone are the days of pounding the pavement and knocking on doors. There was a time when you could walk in a retail store in your Sunday best, ask for the manager and an application, and be hired on the spot. When my oldest began applying for jobs at age 16, we found out stores get really irritated by this outdated practice. “Everything is online,” they tell you in a condescending voice. They may as well hang up a sign that reads: “Online applications only!” … Oh, wait. Some of them do. 

The bottom line is, the world has changed at breakneck speed, and colleges are aware of this. I think the reason these colleges are making admission more and more difficult is because they are aware that most highly qualified American students are opting to take less traditional routes to college, such as going right to community colleges where they can get the most bang for their buck, or going straight into the workforce where experience, connections, and entrepreneurship are valued well above a college degree. Who needs a degree when a startup is hiring for their CGI department in Silicon Valley and happen to be an online best friend whom your kid has been gaming with for a decade? 

This generation of kids is wising up. They fully understand the concept of working smarter, not harder. Students who are Gen Z, mostly the offspring of Gen X, are highly in tune with what they need to get where they’re going. Look at the Parkland students in Florida who’ve captured and held the media spotlight for over a month regarding gun control. We’ve never seen anything like it. This is a generation that is woke, and they’re sick and tired of things as they are, and they especially hate arbitrary “because-we-ve-always-done-it-this-way excuses. 

Thanks to recently published books like Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, we now know that most colleges, and the vast majority of non-elite institutions, are on the cusp of facing severe shortage of potential students. Gen Z also seems to inherently understand that there are many lucrative occupations nowadays which do not require a college degree, a finding that’s backed up by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These kids are also smart enough to understand that it doesn’t matter where they get their college education, either, whether it’s a local community college or an elite private school. Further, they understand that a mere 4-year-college degree offers them nothing in life. It’s all about who you know, how tech savvy you are, how connected you are, and how large your digital footprint. There are veritable thousands of young folks making a viable living off of producing their own YouTube video game tutorials. And none of these kids want to be in debt after watching their parents, Gen X, remain stifled in debt most of their adulthoods, unable to provide a comfortable life barely at all once the great recession of 2008 hit. This is how this generation has grown up. 

One of my good friends who’s an esteemed medical doctor laments the long and crooked path it took her to get there. She often talks about the amount of debt she’s still in from college and graduate schools – that her supposedly lucrative doctor salary should afford her a life of luxury but there have been times her family has been on food stamps because they’re so in-the-red on numerous college loans. 

While it’s frustrating to watch our kids to work so hard all their lives to end up facing so much pre-college competition, it’s also a blessing in disguise, and these kids will no doubt re-shape the future in a different, more competitive way. I only hate that my generation arrived a little too late to the Baby Boomer party of influential jobs and impressive resumes, and a little too early for the Gen Z’ers who are taking us to the next level of technology and social progress as we know it.

This generation is full of kids like my son. They are smart, compassionate, tech savvy, creative, artistic, and have an entrepreneurial spirit like no other generation I’ve seen. Most of them are already working in high school out of necessity, and they understand the value of a dollar.

I seriously believe colleges and universities who may not have formerly been competitive now are, and I believe ones that were already competitive are doubling-down on the competitive factor even harder. Why? Because they see the trend, and they know kids don’t need their offerings as much anymore to have a successful life. As 4-year institutions are beginning to lose relevance in a world of self-made millionaires and social media icons who don’t have or need college degrees, these 4-year institutions are creating a sense of extreme urgency and an inflated sense of value. Well, that’s just my opinion. But if they’re smart, that’s what the college bigwigs should see – their degrees are becoming less relevant with nothing but time and creativity. 



2 thoughts on “The Torture Of College Application Season: Is It Worth It??

  1. Nancy Swisher says:

    Martie, this article is big…important. It needs to be widely published. I could even see it in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the sine qua non of academic commentary. Maybe a shortened version in the N&O. Your insights on trends in education vis-a-vis the application process are far beyond and more incisive than the prevailing mindset. Don’t let this drop. Again, it’s important.

    Liked by 2 people

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