It’s Time to Stop Validating Toxic College Discourse

If you asked me to describe the college process in one word, I would say (easily and without hesitation) toxic. Ask any senior currently drowning in applications or painfully awaiting their decision letters, and I’m sure they will agree. Application-season toxicity: you’ll see it in the face of the senior who just pulled an all-nighter perfecting her Common App essay; you’ll feel it in the palpable stress pervading the college counselling lounge in the days before a deadline; worst of all, you’ll hear it in students’ rhetoric, both toward themselves and their peers. This last one, toxic discourse, is a problem that we as students need to eradicate. Here are just a few all-too-common phrases that do much more harm than good:

“Of course they’ll get in. They’re [insert minority of your choice].”

The issue of affirmative action in the American college application process is a testy topic, seen in several high-profile legal cases in recent years, and often leads to dangerously generalized sentiments like this one, often by white applicants. In fact, a substitute teacher recently commented to my math class that she sympathized with how difficult it is to apply and get into college, especially “now that they want minorities.” Unsettlingly racist undertones of that statement aside, I am taken aback by how easily we as applicants can get sucked into application-related bitterness to the point of reducing our peers to their race as a point of contention. This comment, and others of the same variety, are ripe with toxic assumptions. Firstly, casually assuming the acceptance of the peer in question subjects them to undue pressure and inevitably leads to added shame and stress if they are rejected. Second, this assertion suggests that colleges use race as an absolute deciding factor in the process of application readings. I readily admit that I have no experience as a university admissions director, but I do not think I’m wrong to suggest that race cannot make or break an applicant when weighed against test scores, essays, extracurriculars, interest and the multitude of other factors that go into holistic review. Most importantly, commenting that someone’s race is the reason they did, will or can get into college unfairly tosses aside the years of hard work preceding their personal application process, reducing them to an ethnicity and ignoring academic and extracurricular accomplishments that likely serve as the real reasons for their acceptance. Congratulate their achievement and move on.

“It’s not fair! I don’t have enough of a sob story or inspiring anecdote to make my essay stand out!”

As I was in the painful brainstorming and drafting processes for college essays earlier this year, I often fell into this mentality. Falling into the stressful rabbit hole that is College Confidential, I would become disheartened as I read essay after essay detailing students overcoming life-threatening illnesses to become activists for awareness, or basically raising their younger siblings due to tragic circumstances at home while holding two jobs and balancing school on top of it all or inventing and coding an app that enabled city government to better tackle systemic poverty in their community. Especially at first, it’s easy to reflect on your own life in comparison and find difficulty locating ways that you overcame impossible odds or completely transformed society. It’s important to step back, however, and realize that colleges are looking to get to know you in the personal statement; it’s not a contest of which applicant has faced the most hardship. It just so happens that, for many students, hardship has shaped them in ways important to share in their applications. Impactful events in service, an inspiring family member or any number of things that will reveal who you are will be just as poignant in an essay. Torturing yourself over the lack of life-threatening illness in your life is pointless and—let’s face it—almost laughably irrational. This comment is toxic from all perspectives: both for the speaker (sans sob story) and for those with a potentially unique narrative of personal struggle. The speaker belittles and overlooks the many interesting aspects of themselves while simultaneously reducing adversity in others’ lives to leverage in a college application. Any way you look at it, the statement is the epitome of dangerous comparison and lack of empathy.

“I just applied to [insert school of your choice] as a safety. I’ll obviously get in.”

This is another case of needing to step back and consider other perspectives. What might be a safety school for you could be the top choice of the person sitting next to you. Put yourself in the shoes of the girl crushed by a recent rejection letter, only to hear her friend casually call it a safety the next day. This comment, though likely without any malicious intent, can easily be accidentally hurtful. Of course, it is an important part of the process to determine which schools are safety, match, or reach, but it can be easy to forget that every student is at a different point as an applicant, with unique circumstances and desires for his or her college of choice. A closely related statement to this one is its more confrontational cousin: “You want to go there? But it’s so easy to get in!” Again, the speaker falls victim to those pesky toxic assumptions once again. Remember that not everyone wants the same thing in their university experience, with countless factors and personal research going into a college choice beyond an acceptance rate.

“It’s unfair that an athlete could take my spot in my dream school! I’ve worked so hard!”

Everyone applying to college has worked hard! Dismissing athletes as undeserving of admission at a school simply because they were recruited is disrespectful and ignorant of the process. As anyone committed for a sport—there is an incredible amount of work, which they have undertaken over years, that goes into the recruitment and committing process behind the scenes. These students have balanced their academic responsibilities with countless hours of practicing their sport, perhaps daily. Their achievement should be celebrated, not torn down or resented! Keep in mind, too, that the average academic applicant is not competing against the Division I-commit for a spot in the freshman class. A certain number of spots are set aside for these athletes, separate from the rest of the application pool. It also seems common to disregard any academic component of the committing process, when, in actuality, many schools require incoming athletes to achieve outstanding scores or grade averages for acceptance on top of their outstanding athletic talent. Reducing one’s acceptance to sport performance alone is entirely oversimplified. Again, congratulate their achievement and move on.

In the end, all of these phrases—and countless others like them—are inevitable outcomes of a process that encourages students to view each other as opponents and push themselves to a point of exertion beyond reason. No matter the cause, though, we have the power to make the stressful act of applying to college a little less painful by being mindful of what we say. Whether you are years away from college applications or currently in the thick of it right, eliminating toxic discourse as much as possible will do wonders to improve the mindsets of you and your peers in such a tense time.

Image courtesy of Headspace

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