Faced with college application pressures, pursuing authentic interests may seem impractical for rising seniors; COVID-19 is exacerbating the problem

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Voice of the Pioneer Community

People familiar with Pioneer know that our values and principles are centered around empowering students to pursue their authentic interests. Experts debate how the pressures of the college application process affect students’ decisions about their pursuits. Pioneer has regularly invited students and educators to discuss this matter.

Many people hoped that college admissions office decisions to forgo testing requirements would alleviate these pressures. Instead, the COVID outbreak fueled them. The test-optional status increased applications to selective institutions, decreased admissions chances, and exacerbated students’ rising stress levels. Logically, students feel increased pressure to “produce” achievements they think admissions officers want to see.

Pioneer strongly advocates protecting and nurturing students’ genuine interests. We very much care
about students’ desire to balance their personal interests against application pressure, and we like to
share their voices with the greater community.

We recently conducted a survey among Pioneer scholars about how they sustain their interests when
swirling in the tumultuous tides of college application season. We appreciate that 167 Pioneer scholars completed a survey we prepared. Their responses are intriguing.

Note: As this survey was sent to Pioneer alumni, the respondents may not represent the general high school-student population because Pioneer alumni are an academically driven group. For example, for those who did report SAT scores in their 2020-2021 applications, the average 11th grade applicant’s score in their junior year was 1515.

How did the pandemic affect summer or extracurricular-activity options? COVID curtailed many activities. Most impacted were internships, volunteering, and summer school options.

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The pressures of college application cast a shadow on the joy of pursuing genuine interests. In order to stand out in the college application process, students feel pressured to differentiate themselves. 96% of respondents indicated they believe differentiation is important. 78% felt that they would have cared about differentiating themselves from their peers regardless of the college application process. However, 86% of respondents agreed, to a greater or lesser extent, that their extracurricular choices were designed around application strategies. This indicates that students may not have enjoyed full freedom to pursue their interests because they wanted to tailor what they do to application strategies.

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Pursuing genuine interests in high school can be a luxury, and it requires students to be determined to protect those interests. The good news is that 80% of respondents had enriching summers with two or more activities despite the pandemic. 42% said they would have done the same activities if they had not needed to prepare for college applications, while 58% of them expressed that they would have spent their summers differently. We’d like to call on all educators to hear their voices and to protect their interests.

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If college entrance pressure were not a factor, scholars would pursue activities that are interesting and intellectual anyway. (Below are some quotes directly from the survey)

  • “I would use the time saved from not working on college applications to travel and spend time with
    friends. I would still do the same activities that I’m currently doing because I really enjoy them.”
  • “Spend a little more with friends, save time from studying SAT, but still would’ve tried to fill my summer with activities that draw my interest. “
  • “I also want to volunteer or have my own project in my community.”
  • “Learning Spanish and doing art.”
  • “Read books, travel, and teach my junior schoolmates”
  • “Doing a looot of sports, travel in different countries and learn their languages”
  • “I would have spent it by reading my favorite novels along with spending time learning a couple of concepts relating to data science”
  • “Doing martial arts or investing”
  • “Spend all my time reading”
  • “The offline hands-on robotics program”

What are the changes students want to see in American college applications? (below are some quotes directly from the survey)

  • “College lottery ~ I just have a general problem with padding culture, which is a huge problem. It’s sad, but it’s a consequence of the college admissions system.”
  • “Allow increased dual enrollment for high schoolers to get the college experience”
  • “Make it more genuine instead of forcing kids to do stuff they don’t want to do just to get into college”
  • “Standardized tests are still something that makes a big difference in applications (at least it’s what it felt), especially the APs and SATs etc.”
  • “I would like for students to have no access to external help during the college admissions process (other than from their teachers at school) since they gain an unfair advantage.”
  • “I wish each college had the same essay prompts”
  • “A large part of the application process takes place from summer term of 11th grade to January of 12th grade. I would change the process so that applications take place after the end of 12th grade, so students can work on their applications without distraction and on their exams without distraction. Failing this, I would make the process more spread out, so students aren’t as stressed during this process”
  • “Require less on standard testing”
  • “Clearer guidelines than ‘show your authentic self'”
  • “I’d remove all requirements and see what is done only for college and what is done just because that thing is his/her interest.”

No single organization or individual can alone change the reality of the college admissions industry. Pioneer is committed to sharing our observations and students’ voices. When these voices are strong enough, they will echo throughout the entire space, and then students’ authentic interests will have the best chance to be protected.

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