Our generation is largely defined by how it appears to colleges on a sheet of paper. We live in an age when to be young means to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. For many ambitious students, joining more and more extracurriculars has become something of an insatiable but unpleasant addiction. In the halls of Southwest High School it is not uncommon to overhear adolescent boys and girls casually discussing their GPAs. Sure, there’s still time for us to shoot the breeze with friends and family—we just have to make sure it’s on the weekend (and not on Sunday).
There are certainly exceptions—some of us would rather have a high Call of Duty Kill-Death ratio than a high GPA—but for a sizable portion of the Southwest student body, there is no denying that the idea of applying to college has had a huge impact on the choices we’ve made and the time we’ve spent throughout our teenage years. The real question is, how much are we taking from it all?
These days, success is hardly measured in true achievement and life lessons learned. Instead we focus on whether or not someone was accepted into his or her dream college, or tested well, or got the IB diploma, or was a superior athlete or virtuoso musician. In this age, we as individuals have been taught that we are less valued by our taste in culture, style of clothing, and quality of character than by the rigor of our courses, or by a bad grade that haunts our transcript.
Of course, this is not necessarily a difference from ten or fifty years ago—people have always placed value on academia, high IQs, and special talents. The difference these days is that it is much harder to get recognized in the first place. Once upon a time, the best and the brightest were automatically rewarded. Nowadays the same people must not only be intelligent but well-rounded in order to come out ahead. They must show leadership, commitment, cooperation, interest in a number of hobbies, and so on. At the same time, they must survive a number of specific obstacles, including grading systems, standardized tests, and their teachers’ approval.
The problem that arises is a lack of free will. We know what is expected of us, so we do it. The side effects kick in when school clubs begin to suffer, because their members don’t actually care about what they’re doing. A club devoted to animal rights, for example, isn’t going to succeed if it’s filled with vicious carnivores trying to pick up some service hours and maybe a free after-school rice crispy treat. The true spirit of community service is often replaced by the requirement IB and college applications tack onto it. It is difficult for us to become enthusiastic about a certain course when we have a dozen other subjects, just as difficult, that demand our focus.
Ah yes, if only it were about passion. To those who are prodigies in sports or music or tightrope walking and who genuinely love what they do: Kudos. The truth is, it is hard for me to focus on what I really enjoy anymore. Everyday I am force fed requirements and expectations. I hardly have time to absorb a chapter of reading from one class before it is thrown out of the picture by my next big assignment. I want to take it easy, but I also realize what’s at stake every time I sit down to take a test.
Perhaps it is noteworthy that getting into college is so damn hard—perhaps it says something great about my generation and its capabilities. As for how much college really matters, well, that’s a separate issue. All I know is that as long as I want to get into my dream school, and as long as my peers remain smart and talented, I am really only worth a bundle of transcripts, essays, and other slips of paper to someone in a college admission office.