Standardized tests, grade point averages and community service hours are all increasingly important determinants of a student's future, with the college admissions process morphing into a challenging numbers game. This places an unprecedented amount of pressure on high school students who hope to attend one of America's top universities.
Oftentimes, the pressure is too much for students to bear, crushing them under the weight of expectations. In order to avoid failure and ease the burden of an overwhelming admissions process, many high schoolers eventually cut corners to make their college dreams come true.
William Donaldson, a high school senior from Silver Spring, Mayland, attends a school with two competitive magnet programs. He recounted feeling tension within the walls of his classrooms as students did whatever they could to “find an edge.”
“Once you’re there, you’re taught to be a cutting-edge student,” he said. “There’s pressure from parents and peers to succeed on levels that require intense dedication.”
Donaldson said this environment “fosters the idea that you can’t just be you and succeed.”
As a result, students often resort to cheating in order to supersede their normal abilities and meet the expectations of their peers, families and teachers.
“I do know students that have cheated on a college entry exam,” said a UM freshman who asked to remain anonymous. “Back at my high school in Phoenix, Arizona, I knew a whole friend group that took the SAT together and collaborated on it. Now they are in Ivies and other schools in the top 10 percent.”
Students have been reported to write information on water bottle labels, look up answers using their cell phones and even fake diagnoses of ADHD in order to receive extended time on the exam. Some students also turn to “study drugs” such as Adderall to help them stay focused during study sessions.
Allison Hochhauser, a freshman entrepreneurship and motion pictures major, reported extreme levels of competition within her high school, a public institution with an international baccalaureate program. She said her teachers “taught to the test” and cared “more so than they should” about students’ grades. Hochhauser even recalled one girl who hired a college advisor to write her essay and check every step of the application process.
“Everyone is competitive but just super low key about it, except when it comes to college,” Hochhauser said. “That’s when the claws come out.”
Many minority students report feeling an extra pressure from their peers, dealing with the normal college expectations on top of pressures based on racial stereotypes and discriminatory behavior.
Obi Okolo, a senior majoring in biochemistry on the pre-med track, recounted the day he found out that he had been accepted into two Ivy League schools, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. He said he opened the acceptance emails in the track locker room and was instantly overcome with happiness.
However, the feeling didn’t last long. Okolo said his peers at the majority-white Catholic school gossiped about him, claiming he only got into such prestigious schools because he is black. In actuality, Okolo participated in track, soccer and several extracurriculars. He also reported that his grades “were up there” and said his peers often asked him for help on their own assignments.
“I felt upset about it,” said Okolo. “Upset and angry. It’s not like I needed their validation; I just really didn’t need everyone saying these horrible things about me. Just because I actually worked to achieve what I did, and for some reason, people who had been cutting corners the entire time were mad about it.”
Veronika Seider, Kikiloreoluwa Aderoju and Eli Griswold contributed to this reporting.