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Facilitator Melissa De Riggi, shows students some methods of dealing stress during a workshop for grade 9 students at Lakeside Academy in Lachine, Quebec, April 15, 2013. (Christinne Muschi FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Facilitator Melissa De Riggi, shows students some methods of dealing stress during a workshop for grade 9 students at Lakeside Academy in Lachine, Quebec, April 15, 2013. (Christinne Muschi FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Education

Stress of getting into university now starts in Grade 10 Add to ...

Like me, millions of stressed out high-school students are thinking about the same anxiety-inducing subject – university admissions. What’s the cut off? What am I going to write about for my essays? Am I good enough to get in? These are just some of the questions I subject my brain to on a daily basis – and they’re already driving me nuts even though But the more I think about them, the more I begin to realize how formulated, frustrating, and flawed the admission system is. It’s a total mess.

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For those of you who are unfamiliar, the typical application for a top program is broken down into two gut-wrenching sections. The first is your bread and butter grade point average. Universities take your top 6 marks and average them to see whether you meet their cutoff. Sounds all good and fair, right? Hardly. This system is riddled with inconsistencies.

To illustrate my point, I’ll use a personal example. A few months ago, I was talking with a friend of mine from a neighbouring high school. He was in the middle of writing his application, and he was fairly confident less one thing: his English mark. I asked him what his mark was and he told me it was a 90 per cent. Absolutely puzzled by his concern with such a fantastic grade, I asked him why he wasn’t satisfied with his A+. “Most of my class has over 95 per cent.” I almost fainted. A 95 per cent in English? In my school, such a feat is unheard of. Most my classmates are fully content with an 80 – absolutely ecstatic with a 90. The reasoning behind this mark disparity? Bonus marks, mark adjustments, and quote, “easy teachers”– words unfamiliar in my school’s English department.

This inconsistency in marking regularly prevents hard-working students from getting the grades they deserve (or would have gotten in another school) and rewards slackers for being with an “easy” teacher in an “easy” school. With no real way to account for these secondary influences, universities are forced to take our marks at their nominal value – blind about the amount of effort students actually put into the course.

There was a time when I thought that everyone had to work hard to get good grades; that universities would appreciate the laborious hours I put into my course work, writing that 10 page essay, or staying up past 2 a.m. to study for my next math test. That time has clearly passed and I’ve come to realize the true nature of our grading system – it’s mostly luck.

But the fun is far from over. Halfway through Grade 10, after a little bit of research on the university admission process, I discovered a rabid beast prowling, ready to tear my guts out in a couple of years. I discovered the bane of senior students across the nation. I discovered the supplementary application.

For those who were, like me, unaware of this portion of the admission process, the supplementary application is where the universities scrutinize your extracurricular activities, awards, and achievements. In short, it’s where you brag your anxiety-ridden heart out and hope to impress the admissions officers.

The advice universities give for these applications? “Be yourself!” “We want to hear the real you!” This is outstanding advice, provided the real you is captain of the football team, started three charities to help save war orphans in Somalia, and did research under a university professor to discover a potential cure to cystic fibrosis.

But if you’re human, this advice is absolutely useless.

Universities have designed supplementary applications with the intention of “learning more about you” and “figuring out if you’re a right fit for the school.” To me, it seems like all it’s managed to do is lead high-school students on a rigid and restrictive path to become what they believe is an outstanding applicant.

I’ve outlined what I see as the stereotypical 3-step process in achieving this status:

Step 1: Start your own charity (preferably related to the discipline of study you want to pursue). If this is not possible, don’t give up! Board the next flight to an impoverished city in Africa, find a malnourished child, take a couple of photos with him or her, and write about how the experience changed your life. This will ensure you’re “a right fit for the school.”

Step 2: Hold a bunch of leadership positions on random committees or councils. If you’re the Executive Social Media and Marketing Outreach Director of the City Youth Council of Toronto, you’re golden. You will definitely be “a right fit for the school.”

Step 3: Play a bunch of sports and emphasize how your abilities to work well in a team will make you “a right fit for the school.”

Am I being too cynical? Maybe. Am I lying? Absolutely not. I challenge anybody to find a student in a top university program that hasn’t completed at least one of the three steps outlined above.

Personally, I’m nearing the end of my junior year in high school, and I only have a few months left before I have to get cracking on my own university application. In the meantime, I have a decent average to struggle for, a couple of charities to start, and a flight to catch. I can only hope I’ll be a right fit for the school.

Jeff Sheng is a student at Markville Secondary School in Markham, Ont. I’m currently in Grade 11.

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