How to alleviate stress about college applications?

When talking about college applications, you might start to think about whether or not things you have right now -- grades, activities, awards -- are what top colleges are looking for. But you can also think critically about the education you receive and the college application system. Are they the right solutions to make society better? Are they the most ideal models?

Rules from your school, degrees valued by your Chinese parents and society, and criteria from college application systems are not universal principles. They are not the set math formulas or physics theories that apply to everything; even these principles that we consider truth are still evolving. The college application systems are designed by humans, and these systems are probably not the most effective answers to solving problems that are urgent for societies. They need improvement.


Recall your experiences in the Chinese education system. Have you been taught to obey the school rules even if some of them don't make sense? For example, you might be told that you cannot dye your hair, wear makeup, or find a boyfriend/girlfriend at school because they somehow interfere with your study and impact your grades negatively; you might be told that grades are the predictors of your future success; you might be asked to memorize sample essays that don't make a unique point but contain pompous words. Are they still true when you think about them after being in the United States for a while? You might believe in something else. This is because the authorities in China--schools, teachers, textbooks -- are designed specifically to reach goals that the government deems to be the best for the country. On a macro level, the current Chinese education system might be a fine fit for a society with a huge population, but is it the best for every individual? And has the current education system reached its optimal state?


Now, consider the American college application system. Some people might think it is better than the Chinese one, but is it the best? Does every rule of this system make sense? If you attach self-worth to admission to a prestigious college and think that being admitted to Harvard or Stanford means you are a better person, then do you agree on factors that increase your admission chances -- having a legacy, being an underrepresented minority, having donor parents, or even being assigned an interviewer that likes you by chance -- also make you a better person? From here, you can see how some parts of the system don't make complete sense. 


Even the factors that seem to be plausible, like test scores or GPA, might not be reasonable. A lot of Chinese parents think it's unfair that there seems to be a higher requirement for standardized test scores for Asians, but consider this: there is a student whose parents think test scores are important and force him to study for the SAT. He spends a month doing practice tests and his parents hire an expensive private tutor for him. After taking the SAT 3 times, he gets 1590. There is another student who spends all of his time doing programming. He is talented at CS, and he does not care about other things that much. He decides to try the SAT once, gets 1500, and thinks that it's a good score. He does not take another test and goes back to study CS. A third student comes from a relatively poor family. His parents don't have college degrees. He has to work part-time to pay for his tuition, and he cannot afford a tutor. Because of his job, he barely has time to study for the SAT, but he still manages to squeeze some time preparing for the test. He can only afford to take the test once, and he gets 1450. Now, simply by looking at the score, the first student might be the best. But does that indicate that he will make the greatest contribution to society? Does that mean given the same background -- family, income, school -- he will still perform the best? It also seems unfair to not look at his score: although he gets help from a tutor, he spends time studying and does not cheat on his test. However, does a high SAT score indicate one's intellectual ability? Or is it a mere indication of test-taking ability? In the Chinese education system, we are taught to emphasize grades. This certainly has its flaws, but it is relatively fair--even though we have different family backgrounds, we go to similar test-oriented schools, we have similar teachers, we learn from similar textbooks, we are forced to spend a similar amount of time studying, we do similar amounts of schoolwork, and we only get one chance to take the Gaokao. In the United States, however, the difficulties of different schools vary to a greater extent, and test preparation requires additional financial support and efforts. You can also start to think about other aspects of standardized tests, but the main point is: they are just numbers.


Your parents might care about the rankings of colleges. Your friends might talk about this all the time. You can give it a try, now that you are in the United States. But don't attach your self-worth to it. Don't let the school name and ranking represent who you are. Don't stress over tests, choose easy/hard classes, or join clubs simply because they are helpful for college applications. Because the process is so random and there are more factors you cannot control, even if you do everything "right" for a college, you might end up getting rejected. So don't waste what could be amazing four years of your life reaching a goal that is out of your control. Chinese international students are privileged students in China, and you should be aware that your family income is probably the top 1% in China, which means you don't need to worry about what happens if you cannot get a job in the future (you definitely will!). Studying abroad is a precious opportunity to get to know a different culture, make friends, learn foreign languages. If you choose to enjoy life and focus on the process of learning instead of the result, you can easily have a great high school memory and still get into a good college.

Click here to view Amy's reflections on college applications through personal experiences.