Harvard. Stanford. MIT. The circle of elite colleges is tantalizing for many teenagers. And for YA characters, seem to be predetermined destiny.
Maybe I’m just jealous, but they spend the entire book agonizing over boyfriend drama, going to wild parties, and sometimes even solving murders. Not one ounce of homework, but then, Harvard acceptance it is!
Let’s talk about the unrealistic depiction of college admissions in YA fiction.
Elite American College Admissions Is A Lottery
The first thing to understand is that elite American college admissions has become nothing short of a lottery. And it’s a bubble that is probably going to burst soon.
For overachieving high school students who crave success, “HYPSM” (Harvard, Yale. Princeton, Stanford, MIT) seems to be the pinnacle of achievement. Students spend months, even years perfecting essays, preparing interviews, and stacking their resumes to craft the “spike” that just might convince an admissions officer to accept them.
(To get a glimpse of the pure psychopathy and unbridled ambition of teenagers who never go outside, simply spend five minutes on the r/ApplyingToCollege subreddit)
And last year, the acceptance rates for elite US universities were the lowest they’ve ever been.
This is partly attributed to the rise of test-optional applications, and also to trend of kids applying to a larger and larger pool of universities. When my parents were applying to college, people usually applied to around 5 colleges. Now, the average is more like 10-20. And more applications = lower acceptance rates.
Some 2021 Acceptance Rates:
Keep in mind that for the most part, students applying to these schools are already in the top 1% of high school students with regard to standardized test scores, GPA, and extracurriculars. They can only take 3-5% of a pool already filled with the most accomplished students. This makes admissions insanely competitive.
In 2022, the rates were about the same– and some schools refused to publish their statistics. Hm.
The Disconnect From Reality
It mostly just seems like YA authors– and filmmakers for that matter— aren’t aware of the true competitiveness of US college admissions nowadays.
I’m just going to say, at the risk of turning this post into a salty r/iamverysmart rant– I worked extremely hard in high school. I did many, many extracurriculars including publishing my own iOS app, and I had a 1550+ SAT score and 4.0 GPA. I applied to many top-10 universities for computer science– but I did not get into any. That’s okay, but I did spend a lot of my life in high school studying and working on school-related things.
There are several ways in which Hollywood and the YA industry seem to be out-of-touch with the reality of college admissions, mostly with acceptance rates, but also with some other things about the process.
What about major?
Currently, your major– what you plan to study– plays a huge role in the admissions process. Kids aiming for selective universities usually decide on a major with which to apply around junior year, and the really intense ones try to craft their application around this major in order to seem more dedicated to their chosen field, and thus more appealing to colleges.
Also, every university has a different “personality.” Your academic interests play a huge role in which colleges you shoot for. You wouldn’t go to Yale to study aerospace engineering, and you wouldn’t apply to MIT for English literature. This never seems to be discussed in any of the YA novels I read.
Anyway, let’s talk about some of the YA examples of college admissions I’m talking about here. All of these examples contain SPOILERS so proceed with caution.
Bronwyn in One of Us Is Lying (*spoilers ahead*)
In Karen M. McManus’s One of Us is Lying, one of the four main characters, Bronwyn Rojas, is the stereotypical overachiever. She has her sights set on Yale and will do anything to get there.
It’s revealed during the story that her big secret is that she cheated on an AP Chemistry test to save her grade. At the end of the book, her secret comes out, but Yale still accepts her.
This would never happen in real life! If you cheated on something in the way that she did, and your college found out, there is NO way that Yale would accept you and say “oh, people make mistakes.” They have a 4% acceptance rate! They’d just move on to the next valedictorian. In fact, she’d probably be blacklisted from all the top schools.
AND, Bronwyn was involved as a suspect in a sensational murder case. You know they’d probably be even less likely to accept her after that. Sure, they found out Simon killed himself, but Bronwyn’s still going to have residual notoriety, especially now that everyone knows she lies about academics– what else did she lie about?
Peter Kavinsky in the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Movie (*spoilers ahead*)
I’m sorry but how the heck does Peter get into Stanford in the movie for Always and Forever, Lara Jean? All we ever see him do is go to parties and drive Lara Jean around! And apparently the movie features Lara Jean and Peter *planning* to go to Stanford together before submitting their applications. Well, that certainly is something.
The book Always and Forever, Lara Jean is quite a bit more realistic, to be fair, with Lara Jean getting rejected from her dream school, UNC.
Aaron Samuels in Mean Girls (*spoilers ahead*)
Okay. I’m going to now drag one of my favorite movies into this post. So obviously, this isn’t a YA book, but it’s a YA movie, I guess. At the end of Mean Girls, Aaron Samuels gets into Northwestern. Northwestern is an Ivy League with a 9.3% acceptance rate. Aaron Samuels’ entire role in the movie is being the dumb jock that protagonist Cady crushes on.
The whole sideplot is that Cady, who is really good at math, begins purposefully failing her tests so that she can get Aaron to “tutor” her even though Aaron is actually really terrible at math. If you failed calculus, you’d better be a child prodigy in some other area to have even a sliver of a shot at Northwestern, I’m sorry.
Done well: Pip Fitz-Amobi in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (*spoilers ahead*)
To break up the negativity of this post, I’m going to now include an example of a realistic elite college acceptance– Pip getting into Oxford in the A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series.
I don’t know a whole lot about the UK admissions process, but Pip, with her viral podcast and fame from solving a notorious cold case, has a real admissions “spike”.
(Oh I spent way too long on A2C last year)
I’m not sure what college they’re going to make her attend in the US version of the series, as we know the publisher of this series believes Americans cannot comprehend a book set in England, but I can see Pip getting into somewhere ~elite~.
She was already characterized as brilliant and a serious overachiever. The first book even saw her doing homework for an actually realistic amount of time (wow!)
She’s also famous for solving a murder that baffled police for years. They’re going to want her. You go, Pip!
Why are YA Books Out-of-Touch?
Are authors just unaware of the admissions process? Are there rules and stipulations about name-dropping universities in your books? I’m not sure, but regardless, to me this is another manifestation of the generally unrealistic depiction of high school in fiction, a topic I could talk about for hours and which will be explored further in a subsequent post, I think.
So, do you think YA books are disconnected from reality when it comes to elite college admissions? Do you agree with any of my points? Why or why not?
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