Stop asking me about college

Caitlin Beard

Like most high schoolers in economically privileged areas, many Redwood students participate in a cutthroat culture of loading up on Advanced Placement (AP) classes and extracurriculars to become competitive applicants to the same “top” 50 universities. This cultural norm has turned school into a ruthless pressure cooker, with seniors cracking under unrealistically high standards. The achievement pressure has been found to contribute to disproportionately high rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse among affluent teens. Though countless upperclassmen warned me of the unparalleled stress I would feel while applying to colleges, no one could have prepared me for the unwelcome ways in which college has invaded all aspects of my life. 

Illustration by Calla McBride

For instance, if I allow my eyes to wander during class, I’m met with a suffocating sea of blue Common App web pages open on classmates’ computers. Or if I so much as exist in a room with adult-aged humans, no matter how unassuming or unscholarly I try to look, I will inevitably be grilled with a series of painfully invasive questions. These usually include, “Where are ya thinkin’ of applying?” or “What are you majoring in?” Well-meaning adults will often preface their interrogation with an apologetic, “I don’t want to stress you out with a question about college but -,” which does little to soften the blow. Whether they are close relatives or literal strangers on the street, adults seem to think the only relevant thing happening in my life is that I’m applying to college, and only find one response acceptable to their questions: that I will be attending a prestigious university this time next year. 

Unfortunately, adults aren’t the only ones who have mastered the interrogation process. Some fueled by competition, some by genuine curiosity and others just searching for an easy conversation-starter, my peers ask me about college even more than adults do

Only two days into senior year, I was bombarded with classmates asking if they could see my college list, if I was applying to any “Ivies” and if I knew which of my schools track demonstrated interest. When I politely declined discussing these topics, I was accused of “gate-keeping,” or withholding the sought-after treasure that is apparently my college list. This was when I hit my breaking point because the boundaries that I had created had not been respected. 

After a summer of talking about college at numerous family reunions, receiving spam emails from every college in the U.S. and barely grazing the surface of the 20 supplemental essays I had to write, I just wanted to cry and never hear the word “college” again. Ultimately, in order to finish my applications with my sanity still intact, I needed to maintain spaces and relationships in my life that were college-free. The only problem was, I felt like no matter how hard I avoided the subject, it came up: during lunch with my friends, before class with a teacher, when I came home with my parents. The omnipresence of college is smothering me, and this is a feeling I know I am not alone in. According to a September 2022 Bark Survey, 41 percent of Redwood students report hearing parents, teachers and other students talk about college everyday, and 44 percent say they feel stressed when people ask or talk about college. Clearly, parents, teachers and peers need to be more sensitive to the fact that some students prefer a more private application process, or simply don’t enjoy talking about it every waking moment of the day, and that’s okay!

I acknowledge that almost all questions from peers and adults are coming from a place of kindness and a desire to connect. I also realize that my sentiments about college applications are not shared by everyone; some students enjoy bonding over the shared experience with peers or getting advice from adults. While there is nothing wrong with striking up a good-natured conversation about college, it can become harmful if a student voices their discomfort and yet the questioning continues. If someone has communicated that they want privacy or more boundaries, this must be respected. Remember: there is nothing wrong with saying, “Actually, I don’t like to talk about that,” or “I’m going to keep that private.”

The last year of high school does not have to be treated as a gateway to college. It should be relished just as the other three years are — as a time to learn and grow. Everyone always says senior year flies by, so let us enjoy the cheesy school spirit days and the coveted front lot parking spots. I will not allow myself to remember senior year for the colleges I applied to because it will be so much more than that. Let us remember our final year for the lessons learned, the passions uncovered and the lasting relationships formed.