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The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

‘The Hunger Games Between Students’: College Counselors Implement Honor Code to Curb Competition

Students at Palo Alto High School gaze at the Wall of Rejection, a tradition where seniors publicly display their rejection letters from various universities. The WIS Class of 2022 had a similar wall throughout their college application process. (Hallie Faust/The Paly Voice)

Papers peppered with the phrase “we regret to inform you…” lined the walls of the Senior Lounge (“Slounge”). Personal statements and supplemental essays circulated the grade, often without the writer’s knowledge. Two seniors spent hours compiling their classmates’ Early Decision (ED) schools in a spreadsheet. 

Such was the culture during the Class of 2022’s college application process.

“The class dynamic… seems to have become something akin to WIS’s version of Squid Game,” College Counselor Pam Joos wrote in an email to the class on Nov. 5, 2021. “Please count to 10 the next time you think about saying something college related in a public space where people other than your closest friends can hear you.”

As a result, on May 19, 2022, Joos and College Counselor Joanna Tudge shared a Google Form titled “College Counseling Honor Code” with the Class of 2023. 

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In the honor code, Joos and Tudge outlined five rules that the current seniors must follow during their college application process. 

Two of the rules were in place for previous classes: students must write their essays and activities list alone, and if a student is accepted to a university in the ED round, they must attend the school. These two rules are part of the Common Application’s application affirmations, which are five statements that students must attest to before submitting their college applications.

The other three honor code rules are brand new. Students cannot discuss where they and their classmates are applying, their essays or their test scores while on the WIS campus (which Joos and Tudge referred to as the “collegiality rule”). Additionally, students cannot apply to more than 15 U.S. universities and must send their college counselor the final list of schools they are applying to by Dec. 1, 2022. 

Though WIS’s college application cycles have been competitive in the past, the Class of 2022’s particularly cutthroat process spurred Joos and Tudge to add the new rules. “There was too much chatter about college in a public place,” Joos said. “Some of it seems very innocuous, but we know that there were pretty severe mental health issues that came out because of that and students who had to take off time from school.”

If current seniors were to violate the honor code, the Upper School administration might take disciplinary action, according to Joos. For instance, students who broke the collegiality rule would face individual consequences, and if the issue was widespread, the administration might consider revoking seniors’ access to the Slounge.  

Alumnus Alek Danielyan, Class of 2022, believes that students should be encouraged to have open conversations about college. He highlights the stress of senior year at WIS: in addition to undergoing the college application process, students encounter heightened academic rigor in the second year of the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) and often take on leadership roles in clubs and sports.

“Talking about [college] overall can be really helpful so students can just vent,” he said. “They can not only get out their own thoughts and feelings that might have been overwhelming them a little bit during senior year… but also, they can find ways to relate to their peers.”

Senior Madeline Robbins echoes the sentiment that discussing college applications can benefit students’ mental health. “I’ve found a sense of comfort in not discussing in detail, but just knowing where other people are in the application process,” she said. “I either feel like I’m so behind or so ahead… I have no sense of where everyone else is in the application process, and that stresses me out.”

Alumna Mila Martin, Class of 2022, noticed that when the college counselors asked students to stop talking about college, this merely exacerbated the problem. “That entire year, [there wasn’t] a single conversation where people did not bring up college,” she said. “It was literally all-consuming.”

Though many alumni and seniors alike are opposed to the collegiality rule, they mostly support the rule that limits students’ college lists to 15 universities.

Alumna Rani Kumar, Class of 2022, applied to 26 schools and discourages current seniors from doing the same. “Before I got off the waitlist for [New York University], I didn’t want to go to any of my safeties and I was so upset,” she said. “I wish I had only applied to schools that I would genuinely be happy at.” 

Senior Braden Kiang was initially frustrated by the 15 school cap, but he is now grateful for the rule. “I probably would’ve applied to 30 schools, and I definitely don’t have the time for that, or the mental capacity,” he said.

While senior Tristan Martin is applying to domestic and overseas universities, he believes that this rule disadvantages students who are only applying to U.S. colleges. “It can bring comfort to some people to be applying to a lot of schools, just because it makes them feel like, ‘Even if everything goes wrong, I’ll get into a couple,’” he said. “If a student really wants to put in the work to apply to 20 schools, I don’t know if they should be restricted [from] doing so.”

Moreover, some alumni disagree with the honor code rule that students must submit their final college list to their college counselors by Dec. 1.

Alumnae Kumar and Martin added schools to their list from mid-December, when ED decisions were released, to the first week of January. This was mainly so that their college list would be more balanced between safeties (colleges which the student will most likely be accepted to), targets (colleges with academic credentials that match those of the student) and reaches (extremely selective colleges).

“When you haven’t gotten that ED back, there’s still a little part of you that [thinks] ‘I might actually be going there,’ and could make you perhaps not apply to as many safety schools,” Martin said. “Students should have more control because this is their process. If they want to add a school [after Dec. 1], why not?”

In general, alumni and seniors worry that the honor code will not effectively diminish the competitive nature of WIS’s college application process.

Martin points out that many students feel pressured to attend top universities. “At the end of the day, you know that the college counselors and the school want you to go to the best university you possibly can, because it looks good for them,” she said. “[Students] are not really given a way to cope with this pressure, so instead, it becomes the Hunger Games.” 

Robbins thinks that the college process is indicative of a greater trend of competitiveness between students. “There’s this competitive aspect that’s just so ingrained in WIS culture, and I think that it honestly has such a deep, negative impact,” Robbins said. “If you take [the Class of 2022] for example, it’s not that the college admissions process just brought out the worst in them… It was all leading up to this. They’ve always been competitive.” 

Ultimately, Danielyan believes that the key to fostering a less toxic environment is limiting comparisons between students’ college application processes. “It’s different for everyone,” he said. “People’s living situations are different. Their financial situations are different… Be nice to people. Everyone is overwhelmed. Everyone has their own [expletive] going on.”

By Maia Nehme

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