June 9, 2023
The Particular Misery of College-Admissions TikTok

The Particular Misery of College-Admissions TikTok

The teens are all miserable these days, and, while concerned adults are scrambling to figure out why, the teens themselves have taken to documenting their unhappiness all over social media. As a fellow concerned adult and a father of two, I am also worried about the teens. I assume they’re unhappy because they spend a lot of time on their phones instead of partying or digging irrigation ditches or playing soccer or whatever it is that happier children did in the past. But I’m also a Waldorf-school type who believes that all children should spend as much time as possible staring at ants, touching rocks, and breathing in the exhaust from redwood trees. It’s occurred to me that I might be wrong—hippies aren’t so fashionable these days—and that it’s totally fine for young minds to have a capitalism-and-anxiety machine affixed a foot from their faces at all times, so I try to stay open to other explanations.

One of the common theories floating around says that kids these days are under an inordinate amount of pressure to compete with one another. Admissions at top-tier universities, which have certainly become far more competitive than they were when I was applying to school in the late nineties, are seen as a major contributor to this stress. The evidence for this appears all over TikTok and Instagram, where thousands of high-school juniors and seniors post their “stats” and then solicit advice and feedback on where they should apply. The mild virality of these posts has, in turn, let loose a flood of guidance counsellors, random commenters, and students at prestigious schools who all make seemingly earnest, yet undeniably cruel posts about how they found themselves sitting on the steps of the library at Columbia, or wherever else.

It is college-admissions decision time right now, which means that all those stat posters have started to reveal what these colleges think about them. My TikTok algorithms have been feeding me an endless loop of these videos for reasons I don’t quite understand. In one particularly depressing post, a young woman sits at a desk with her head buried in her arms. A Mitski song plays in the background, overlaid with a voice-over that says, “I’ll never be good enough.” Across the screen, a lengthy caption reads:

Getting waitlisted at uci, ucsd, usc and rejected from ucla with
4.18 gpa
created an organization
community service
top 9%
straight As

The comments sections of these posts are filled with encouragement and commiseration, which, I suppose, must be nice for the people making the videos. But watching these clips nearly feels sadistic. You understand that the kid is almost certainly not going to get into any of her dream schools and that, at some point down the line, the TikTok algorithm will serve you a video of her explaining why her safety school was actually the right choice all along. When we watch a poster named Anish at his computer with his mother sitting supportively behind his left shoulder, we already know his “MIT Decision Reaction” will be one of disappointment and desperate rationalization. We expect the same when he, wearing a U.C.L.A. T-shirt, films himself getting waitlisted at U.C.L.A.

All these videos are made in search of explanations, or, at the very least, some coherence. “Idk what I did wrong. . . . I worked so hard for what #waitlisted #rejected,” the caption on the video of the young woman covering her face reads. In many others, people post their results alongside the acceptance rates of the colleges they applied to. The intent, it seems, is to place numbers next to what is ultimately an opaque process—to desperately try to locate a signal amid the noise. They remind me of the people who claim to take a “data-driven” approach to house hunting in the Bay Area, where a tiny inventory of homes tends to get bid up with large cash offers. I don’t think there is any empirical data that could possibly help prospective home buyers in their search. The decisions are more or less left up to God; they have to hope that some very rich or motivated buyer doesn’t come by and simply blow their offer out of the water, or pray for a windfall that would let them become that very rich or motivated buyer. Data, in this market, serves as a coping mechanism.

But people—especially stressed-out teen-agers—do need to cope. Or, at the very least, they need advice. Limmytalks, an account run by Daniel Lim, a sophomore at Duke whose hair looks like it’s held up entirely by static electricity, offers a free service for high-achieving students who need some hard truths about their chances of getting into their dream schools. They send in their stats, and Lim predicts where they’ll ultimately get in. In one, Lim takes on the case of a student with a 4.4 G.P.A. who is “white, medium-high income and Harvard legacy through grandpa” and has ridden horses competitively. He calls her “unique” (which, at least to me, doesn’t seem to be all that true outside of the horseback-riding thing), and says she showed “leadership.” This student applied to thirteen colleges, and Lim bets that she will get accepted to all of them except for Harvard. (He later tells us that she only got into nine out of thirteen schools, but he was right about Harvard.)

Lim’s predictions aren’t always so optimistic. In another question, he says that a valedictorian with a 1580 SAT score has an “average college application.” The problem, in Lim’s estimation, is that the applicant’s awards section, which includes being a finalist for the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame student-athlete award, and his school’s “top award for citizenship,” isn’t all that impressive. On some level, Lim’s assessments are nonsense, yet he’s often proved correct because most kids don’t get into super-selective colleges. The self-appointed college experts of TikTok aren’t unlike the excited men who tell you they have the inside scoop on this weekend’s Jets-versus-Browns betting line—spitting out a fog of numbers, predictions, and seeming expertise. Just as the Vegas touts might pose in front of luxury cars and fan out hundred-dollar bills to earn your confidence that they are living the life they claim, Lim tells you about all the perks he gets as a student at Duke, a “top 10 university” where one gets networking opportunities like meeting the founder of Skillshare.

It should come as no surprise that Lim and many of the people who post these despairing videos are Asian American. The anxiety that underlies these videos and the popularity of Lim’s version of real talk—he has more than a hundred thousand followers on TikTok—come from the growing consensus among Asian American families and their teen-age children that these colleges do not want them on their campuses, regardless of their accomplishments.

Earlier this year, Lim posted a video about the racial makeup of admitted students at Harvard and Yale. He did the math that’s become almost gospel in a lot of Asian households and noted that fifty-six per cent of African American applicants in the top decile get into Harvard, compared with just thirteen per cent for Asian Americans. When one looks at the chart, Lim explains, what becomes clear is that you can be a Black student in the bottom forty per cent of applicants and have the same chance as an Asian American student in the top ten per cent. “I understand both sides of the argument and sympathize with both,” Lim says. “The fact of the matter is that this is a very nuanced situation. It’s easy to blame one another, but that’s the one thing we shouldn’t do. Let me know what you guys think about this situation in the comments.” The comments, predictably, are filled with people saying that this is unfair. One can feel however one wants about the misery of college-admissions TikTok, but it reflects a real sense of helplessness—a feeling that, no matter what your résumé says, the only actual determining factor for getting into college is what race you check on your application.

How long can this exclusive and ultimately pointless system hold up? How long can kids exhaust themselves in pursuit of perfect stats? How long until they accept that their fate lies with a group of strangers whose only real public appearance comes after scandals, whether the Varsity Blues investigation, in which it was found that several élite schools were running what amounted to a payola scam, or Harvard’s affirmative-action case, in which admissions officers consistently concluded that Asian applicants had worse personalities than applicants of other races? What has resulted is a fevered competition in which the participants feel that the stakes are a matter of life and death, and where all the referees—admissions officials, TikTok commenters, and the like—are consistently lying about pretty much everything.

Coupled with the skyrocketing cost of college, it would seem that this system is poised to break at some time in the near future. Surely, at some point, some critical mass of young people and their parents will simply refuse to spend their lives trying to decipher a seemingly arbitrary system and find some other pathway. In the past few years, I have argued that an alternative would be a heavy federal investment in community colleges funded by purposefully punitive endowment taxes on élite private institutions. This would ideally normalize a free option for high-school graduates, who then could transfer into state schools. Reaching a point where most of the students at any given university have attended two years of community college would not only dramatically lower the cost of a four-year degree, but also do away with much of the awful credentialism that currently plagues the lives of American teen-agers. But, while I believe that those changes are the only hope for truly equitable higher education, I also know the revolution will likely never come. Élite schools will talk a good game about their commitments to diversity and equitable access, but their continued existence depends on this bankrupt system, even if it breeds depression, delusion, and racial resentment. ♦

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