Our school system has been under attack for a while now, it seems– especially salient is the stress high schoolers face as they prepare for college. Getting into college is now like an ultra-high stakes game– and everyone is playing to win.
Here in the Bay Area especially, many students have their eyes set on those top-tier colleges, which easily come to mind– UC Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, and the like. That in itself is not a bad thing.
The problem is these colleges can take only so many students, and they’re also very exclusive. The schools we seem to all want to go to only accept 10% or less of applicants. Which means right off the bat, the other 90% of us aren’t getting in.
But this doesn’t seem to faze us. We take those extra classes, cram in those extracurricular and vie to be just “a little more extraordinary” than the person before us, hoping that extra summer lecture we took at Stanford on molecular biology will make all the difference.
And this has some startling effects on our surroundings. Tutoring centers are a great example of this. We’ve created a $103 billion dollar industry that profits off this hope*1. We think that extra boost in grades is what it takes– it’s become more of a norm than ever to take SAT boot camps– and of course the tutoring centers are more than happy to oblige.
I’ve seen instructors who say they are happy to work at tutoring centers because it allows them to help students realize their goals and reach their dream schools.
That’s great for the student who can afford the help, but getting into college is a zero-sum game– a student who is “pruned” for colleges effectively takes spots away from applicants who don’t have access to those kinds of resources.
But equitableness aside, there’s a fundamental issue that I believe is more disruptive– what colleges look for.
“Academic excellence. Dedication. Genuine Interest.”*2 These are trite descriptions of what colleges look for. And we’ve taken it to the extreme. We’ve taken to shooting for 4.0’s, becoming president of 3 clubs, and hunting for summer internships at universities to rise to the occasion.
And what does this imply about the type of person colleges look for?
Times are changing. In a global society, we’re facing problems that test our commitment to not just our local communities, but to citizens across the world. To create the next generation of leaders, problem solvers, and visionaries, we need feeling, thinking, open-minded humans. We need people able to deal with the rapidly changing world environment, create new ideas, and offer new perspectives.
But the current school system is not doing this.*3
We’re saying that success looks like straight A’s and juggling multiple after-school activities.
We’re not stressing thinking, life skills, or a broader world view. Being a human is more about doing well in classes. But it seems that job has been relegated elsewhere.
Instead, students are led to believe that they can bolster their college application by seeing who can “complete the most objectives”, and the scores from standardized testing only increases this terrible example of gamification.
Testing, often, isn’t the most effective way to gauge learning at all. *4/*5
So it’s not just the fact that we have students overworking themselves for a sliver of possibility, but that the entire process isn’t what optimal learning looks like.
What can we do? There are all sort of ideas for reforming the system*6. Hopefully, we can work on those. But in the meantime, it’s worth it to examine how school fits in with your personal value framework.
What do you care about? Past that 4.0, past the Ivy League education, what are you looking for?
If you’re hellbent on staying in the competitive circuit (and I’m sure many of you will), and don’t have the best idea of what to major in during your time on college or what to do right after, I suggest you check out www.80000hours.org .
It’s not about education reform, but they do give great advice on choosing a career, which can definitely help narrow your school choices down. Also, they talk about doing the most with your job– how you can help the most people AND earn the most money.
So we started by examining some shortcomings of the general college application process and filtered it to see its effects on the student industry, life, and culture. We’re still a long way from any ideal situation.
But you can change your own mindset. You can stare at the reality before you– the tests, the stress, the culture.
And you can choose to reject it.
You can choose to move on, take what you can from school, and still do what you want. You don’t need to get sucked into any culture of mass-high achievement or laundry lists of achievements.
Life is about more than this.
Have you read any of the world’s top 100 books?*7 Or looked into humanity’s greatest threats to our existence?*8
There’s an entire world of human experience out there, and it would be a shame if all we got out of our formative years was a finely developed skill for filling out bubbles…