The Greatest Scam Ever Sold: The College Application

Thomas Meyer, Section Editor

With May 1, decision day, rapidly approaching, the end of the college application process is in sight and the fruits of the labor of the senior class are coming into view. This is an exciting time but it also gives room for reflection on this long process resulting in the following conclusion: college applications are a scam. The college application process is neither cheap nor straightforward nor fair by any stretch of the imagination. It is a scam is the truest meaning of the word: a dishonest scheme; a fraud. And yet, we will almost all certainly continue to engage in this process and do so without questioning this system at all. 


But first, let me make two  brief statements:

  1. This is by no way a call to reject college. While it is true that college is not meant for everyone and success is most certainly achievable without college, college can be and is a great opportunity. It is a fact that college graduates have more lucrative careers on average than non college graduates. College is, in this sense, a form of insurance for one’s future career. I myself plan to attend college. This critique lies with the application process, not with the concept of college.
    2. Secondly, I would like to make clear that the college counseling office and all the faculty at Athens Academy have been wonderful in assisting the senior class and me with this needlessly complex process. The critique lies, again, with the system, not with any department or office within Athens Academy. I simply wish to share what I learned from my own experience and research. I do not purport to be an expert or absolute authority in this field. On the contrary, I only have knowledge of my personal experience and the experiences of my peers. With these disclaimers stated, let us begin:


  1. The process is not cheap. On the contrary, it is needlessly expensive. This refers merely to the application process, not to mention the inordinate cost of attending college, a different issue on its own with tuition spiraling up and up without bound. Each application will cost between $50 and $80. In addition, you will need test scores to apply. Most students try both the SAT and ACT and take both several times. The SAT costs $55 and the ACT costs $66. Sending the scores cost extra and given that the deadline to send a score without charge is before the scores are released, the College Board essentially forces the payment to send scores. It costs $12 per score per school to send the SAT and $16 for the ACT. These costs are excluding fees and express sending ― there is a significant fee if you want to guarantee that the College Board sends your score quickly. Many students utilize resources to achieve a more competitive score. In this competitive process, it essentially becomes necessary for many students to pay for study books and/or tutoring/classes. These are often extremely expensive. This is also true for essay tutoring/guidance. However, Athens Academy has great resources for college essays in the writing department and the english department. Furthermore, in order to have a competitive application, it is likely you will need AP classes and exam scores. The College Board charges $97 for each AP exam and $15 to send a score report (per school). It is possible to self report AP scores but this could possibly affect your application. Ironically, it costs to apply for financial aid. The FAFSA form, a federal financial aid form, is free to complete and send to schools. However, many schools also require the CSS profile, a College Board form. This costs $25 to submit to the first schools and $16 to any subsequent school. The average student will apply to between 5 and 9 schools. Taking the midpoint, the total cost to apply to 7 schools was almost $2000 (~$1911). The college application process, consequently, has been weaponized and monetized by both universities and corporations, mainly the College Board, the consensus most hated corporation by high school students and teachers alike, which holds a pseudo monopoly on the high school standardized tests and other college admissions related resources. 


  1. The college application process is not straightforward. It is the opposite. Most schools with competitive admissions openly state that a “good” or “perfect” application does not exist. They intentionally paint the picture of a complex and nuanced process using euphemisms like “holistic” and “compassionate.” In many cases, the process feels like a lottery or a game of chance. Colleges tell applicants that they are not looking or anything in particular: “Just be yourself and tell us about your passions.” This is false. Colleges are certainly looking for something, the question simply becomes what are they looking for. At competitive colleges, every applicant will have top grades and test scores. The cliche becomes: do something to stand out. This is true but at these schools, being the president of the student body or participating in some clubs will not stand out at all. For these schools, I searched a lot for a “perfect” application and I did not find a fail safe way to achieve admittance. On the contrary, I was rejected from several top schools. (I guess keep this in mind when reading my advice later on.) 


  1. Thirdly, the process is just in general not fair. 


To conclude, here is a list of pragmatic advice for underclassmen regarding this process because, like it or not, you will have to play the game regardless of how much we can despise it. This advice comes from personal experience so do with that what you will. Note, this is mainly for those interested in schools with rather competitive admissions. 


  1. Relax

Things will work out no matter where you go. Success comes to those who work hard, not those who go to Harvard. There is no need to worry too much about what admissions officers will decide to do with your file. Do the work that is in your control: school work, essays, resume. I recommend keeping an updated resume starting now. There is no time like the present. The earlier the better so you can see where you are missing and can better prepare for writing the essays. 

  1. SAT & ACT

Take the SAT/ACT early. I recommend summer before junior year. Algebra II is the highest level math which can appear on the SAT. I waited until Spring of Junior year and it certainly caused much more stress. Obviously, you should prepare and practice. Also, I suggest that in the verbal section, especially if you read quickly, that you read the entire passage even though the questions all have specific line references. This will help with the questions that ask about what should the title be or which sentence best fits here etc etc. Also, in the reading section, I am a believer in reading the entire passage first, slowly and carefully and then answering the questions quickly. However, different people are different so do whatever is best for you. 

  1. Essays

The best time is summer before senior year. The common app prompt does not change and essentially you can write on anything and everything. Supplemental essays can change for some of the most competitive schools but many also remain the same. I recommend writing all essays and supplementals during this summer before the fall of senior year which is so hectic. This way you can make any needed changes during interim week and then be done and not have to stress about the essays. There are a lot of supplementals so it can be helpful to create a spreadsheet. Organize by school, deadline and type of essay. You will find that the supplementals can be grouped into similar categories, most commonly, the diversity essay, the extracurricular essay and the academic essay. Most competitive schools will also have quirky questions. UGA asks for a funny or interesting story. Rice asks for a photograph. Princeton asks what your favorite song is at the moment. These essays are the most important because apart from the essays, most applications to prestigious schools will look almost identical with high grades, test scores, lots of extracurriculars and academic honors. Also, I recommend a calendar or spreadsheet of deadlines, scholarship deadlines and decision dates. 

  1. Play the Game

There may not be a right application but there certainly are wrong ones. Avoid cliche essays unless you are extremely confident it will work. Avoid writing about a sport, an injury or anything not specific to you as an individual. Essentially, if your essay could apply to someone else, it is wrong. In addition, you can try to make the application make sense and fit what they want to hear. Essentially, how high school led you to a certain point and college of choice and then how said college will lead you forward. Also, doing research and/or internships in either academia or the private sector is extremely important to competitive schools. UGA is a great place to do research. Summer after sophomore or junior year is the time to do this. Additionally, it is no secret that college campuses and college admissions are predominantly of the political left ideologically. Perhaps just keep this in mind. 

  1. Scholarships

Pay Attention to these, even small ones add up. $1000 may only be a small part of the $70,000 tuition but if you found $1000 on the street, you would be pretty happy. 


Best of luck and I’ll close with this from American author and speaker Zig Ziglar: “You were designed for accomplishment, engineered for success, and endowed with the seeds of greatness.”