About this time two years ago, my peers and I, save those admitted ED, opened many a fateful web portal to receive our admissions decisions from Duke and other colleges. Because I’m here, writing this column, you might assume my college admissions process went well. Well, it did not—at least not initially.
This time two years ago I wasn’t celebrating my acceptance to Duke, because I wasn’t accepted to Duke. I was waitlisted here, and at a couple of peer institutions. This time two years ago I would have accepted an offer from any of them in a heartbeat, because I had fully drunk the Kool-Aid of the elite college ecosystem, and I couldn’t stomach the fact that none of my choices were a top-20 school.
I understand why the waitlist exists—colleges like Duke must protect their yield by strategically offering spots, using the applicants on the bubble to fill in any gaps from regular decision candidates who decline their spots. But to be relegated to it not once, not twice, but three times felt just plain brutal. It couldn’t have been a fluke, I thought—why wasn’t I good enough?
For the month of April 2020, I worried and regretted, considering a gap year and reapplications or starting somewhere else and transferring. I eventually paid my deposit to a state school that is perfectly respectable, but probably wouldn’t have been a good fit for me, because what mattered the most to me was getting an education. I checked College Confidential forums at least daily for each of the schools at which I had been waitlisted, and ignored texts from my classmates as to which prestigious school I would be attending.
The Covid-induced quarantine times were a veritable blessing and a curse, enabling me to avoid facing my failure via acknowledging it to my high school peers and teachers, but forcing me to spend abundant time with my thoughts, wondering what I had done wrong. Eventually, the day before the traditional May 1st decision day, I was offered a spot in the class of 2024. I’m here now, the result is the same. But it very easily couldn’t have been.
If I had to do it over, there are certainly many mistakes I could rectify, but I’ve since realized how external the entire process was. I could never control the circumstances into which I was born, the educational resources to which I had access or the quality of the support (or lack thereof) I received when going through the process. As it happens, it all worked out in the end in what I’d like to think is a way that was meant to be—and I’m thankful for the hindsight-aided clarity—but the process disillusioned me, early and thoroughly. This is by no means a hot take, but the college admissions process is deeply flawed.
I have many privileges in life, but—unfortunately for my high school senior self—none are particularly beneficial in winning the elite college admissions game. I have highly-educated parents and siblings, but I am not a legacy here. My family is financially well-off, but I can’t pay even half the cost of attendance. I stood out academically in the context of my small high school, but I’m sure none of the admissions officers recognized it, or would have been particularly impressed if they did; my high school guidance counselor didn’t know what MIT stood for, let alone how to help me apply there or any other elite colleges.
Two years ago, I was told I was good, but not quite good enough. I was told I don’t deserve to be here as much as the bulk of my classmates do. Am I glad for the perspective on the general ridiculousness of the elite college admissions process? Certainly. Does it still hurt? Of course. I was at once shown that there is nothing fair about a meritocracy and catalyzed into doing everything I could to justify my place in this one.
It is incredibly important to perpetually examine systems of inequity, especially when they continue to benefit us so deeply. It’s easy to criticize college admissions as a jaded high school senior. It’s easy to question policies like legacy admissions and athlete recruitment when you aren’t one. But when we are sitting comfortably at our Duke degree begotten jobs or helping our future children choose which colleges to apply to, will that same energy remain?
This is inextricably tied to the question of what the goals of a prestigious university are. Is this a place of learning first, a place for individuals with similar values but diverse backgrounds to explore their intellectual interests while gaining experiences that lead to personal growth? Or is this a degree factory, a way to justify later successes by providing proof of deserving them, because our world has decided a Duke degree holds value? I’ll let you decide what the current admissions system reflects.
A lot of people seem to view the process as something of a crapshoot. I don’t believe it’s that nondeterministic. I don’t mind so much that it is a game, but what I do mind is that the instructions are not equally available to everyone who wishes to participate. That the factors in an individual’s control are often not the most important, nor do they make much of a difference. That the result is something that has become more of a consumable good than a desired experience. That change can only occur so far as those in power continue to benefit.
I remain immensely grateful for my eventual acceptance to Duke, because I value education and I value the connections which I have made here and the incredible opportunities which I have been afforded. But I will never forget how close I was to not having any of this. This is why I get so riled up when my peers take their places here so for granted or treat this like another stepping stone on the path to an affluent life. The value of going here shouldn’t be the spoils of winning a game of privilege, luck and advantage that started before any of us were even born.
Heidi Smith is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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