By Juliet Fang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Every May, millions of high school seniors click “Accept” buttons on their college application portals, committing to colleges where they will spend the next four years of their lives.
They’ve officially finished their college applications—a daunting, overwhelming, stressful, and mentally challenging process. And with the last two years of pandemic uncertainties affecting the class of 2026, since their sophomore year of high school, applying to college has only become more difficult.
“When the pandemic started, my sense of routine was completely shot. My friends and I felt completely lost,” says Emily Chen, a high school senior at Buchanan High School in Fresno, California. “Not only was it more difficult than ever to keep my grades up with the sudden change to remote learning, but my summer internships were postponed and my debate tournaments were canceled.”
These extracurricular activities—summer enrichment camps, science fairs, club activities—are becoming exceedingly important as students try to differentiate themselves from an increasingly large and competitive pool of applicants. According to College Confidential, a college admissions website, the amount of applicants has skyrocketed in the past two years, in part due to test-optional policies. Harvard’s admission rate dropped to a record low (3.19%), along with Stanford (3.95%), Brown University (5%), and University of California, Berkeley (14%). What do all these numbers amount to for students? Stress, and lots of it.
“My mental health took a hit, like lots of my classmates,” says Emilea Okayasu, a high school senior at University High School in Fresno, California. “I was isolated, so my junior year was largely me just cooped up in my room being confused and stressed about what I was going to do for the next four years.”
“I was pretty much on my own navigating the college admissions process, which was extremely difficult. You can’t mess up and forget to submit a document, especially for things like financial aid. Worse, I didn’t have anyone like a counselor to help me within arm’s reach.”
Indeed, with colleges requesting multiple essays, financial aid documents, transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation in their applications, the admissions process is often nebulous.
Without in-person access to school guidance counselors, many students had to answer tough questions on their own: Should I take the SATs? How many colleges do I apply to? Which ones?
How does financial aid work? What activities do I participate in?
Christie Saetang, a high school senior from Orange High School in Orange, California, found herself struggling to answer these questions.
“I already had a plan for college in my sophomore year: get good grades, do well on the SATs, become involved in extracurriculars, and make meaningful connections with teachers. The pandemic threw all of that out. Suddenly, I felt that I was going nowhere, that nothing I was doing was good enough, that I would never make it into college. It was a tough time.”
She cites internal and external pressures as the source of her anxiety.
“I feared failing myself. But I was also scared of disappointing my parents and my family, since I’ve always felt pressure to get into a prestigious school. The whole climate around college admissions in my family made me feel like if I didn’t get into Stanford, an Ivy League, or MIT, I would have hurt my chance at a professional career.”
Saetang’s story is a common one. Cultural and parental expectations are a frequent struggle for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) high school seniors. Not only is educational prestige prized (i.e., being a Stanford student), but many AAPI families—most notably, East Asian families—with immigrant backgrounds view a college education as a return on years of investment in elementary and high school education, music lessons, and school tutors.
According to Allison Singh of the Huffington Post, “Students from [strict AAPI families] are expected to bring in big returns, and attending an Ivy League school is an indispensable part of the plan.” In essence, going to a “good school” means a better shot at graduate or professional school, which means higher quality career options, which means financial security in the future.
This is a mostly misplaced assumption. Elite undergraduate schools are not “feeder” schools for elite graduate schools. At Harvard Business School, for example, the undergraduate schools represented are as diverse as the students themselves. Often, the road to a professional career path is not as rigid as it is often made out to be.
Saetang, Chen, and Okayasu, planning to enroll at University of California, Berkeley, University of Southern California, and Barnard College, respectively, are now just glad that the college application process is over.
“When I got into Berkeley, it was just a huge sigh of relief,” says Saetang. “I’m so grateful to have been accepted, but, looking back, I know I could have been happy at any number of schools. It took me a while to get out of the mindset that my worth was measured by my accomplishments. I think about how irrational that mentality is now, but it felt very real to me back then.”
She wishes the best of luck and courage to the rising juniors at her high school.
“Try not to care what other people think, especially the ones you won’t see again in a few months. Outside of school, I’d like to say that I hope Asian American parents and extended family will become more understanding that Stanford or Harvard isn’t the end-all, but that’ll take some time.”
“It’s bilateral, you know. They just earnestly want what’s best for us.”
Juliet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.