Pot of Gold

The High School Admissions Process, Take: SchoolLess
“I also hope I haven’t come to all the wrong conclusions.”
Pot of GoldChapter: SchoolLess Speaks
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I can only remember the fall of 2011 as a blur. It was a stressful and confusing time for me. It wasn’t for any specific reason, but instead because of the combination of things going on. The high school application process, months involving school visits and miscellaneous preparations, made last fall seem so long. My bar mitzvah was happening then as well, and although rewarding and unregretful, it was time consuming.

I would not assign too much blame to the bar mitzvah itself, but rather treat it as an add-on that exasperated the effect of the main source of stress: high school applications. As if we needed more, we were doing some renovations and workers were playing loud music all day. The music sounded familiar to me but I could never name a single song, as I don’t listen to a lot of current popular music.

In New York City especially, picking a school is more stressful and time consuming than need be; in fact, my fall was dedicated to it. The time put in prevented me, as well as other 8th graders, from living a normal life academically and socially. I practiced less music, had less free time to spend with friends and family, and all subjects unrelated to testing were less of a priority, much to the dismay of my dad.

The whole process may take some explanation, as many non-New-Yorkers find the process baffling. Actually, now that I think of it, New Yorkers do too.

All New York City high schools are put in three groups: private, public specialized, or “public 12 list” (a personal list of up to 12 of the remaining 500 or so public schools). Schools are dubbed specialized when they require a test called the SHSAT or, as Smaller Man says, “HSHIT.” Each of these schools has a range of scores necessary to be accepted. Stuyvesant, the most competitive school, has a minimum score of 560, whereas Brooklyn Latin is a 472. I’m not entirely sure what these scores are out of, as the formula supposedly changes from year to year.

The requirements for the “12” schools are varied, whether it be an interview, portfolio, test, or any combination of those. In both of these lists, the applier ranks the school. Each school then ranks students without knowing where they fall in the applicant’s rankings. That school accepts them or doesn’t, and the city places the student in the highest ranked school they were accepted to.

The ranking process alone created unnecessary stress.

Around the time of the rankings, the student must study and interview and test to be accepted to the schools. And this wasn’t the worst part; the worst part for me was that by the time I began hearing from the schools (all public school notifications came in a single letter, each private school notification came separately) I had begun to worry that I had exaggerated my liking for the schools I ranked highest. For example, when I visited Bard High School, which I had ranked first, it didn’t strike me as a good fit, and throughout the fall I even contemplated not applying. But, by the time the acceptance results came around, it had become my dream school.

I had a visceral feeling it would happen that way, and I made a consistent effort to make it not happen. The reason my liking for Bard had been so exaggerated was because of a myriad of causes that together proved to be quite harmful.

For starters, Bard required little preparation. The specialized schools have a test so particular that some test prep is necessary for those like me who are uncomfortable with test taking. This turned me away from those schools, both because I dreaded the time consuming work of test prep, and because I resented having to apply myself to something that wasn’t enlightening. In fact, one of the few things the preparation left me with was 350 or so vocab flash cards with obsolete words like “qua” and “quixotic”– words helpful in Scrabble or when listening to NPR. I’ve been playing Scrabble and listening to NPR a lot lately.

So by the time the New Year came and the process was over, Bard had become the ideal school, and when I didn’t get in I was devastated. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that (1) there were other great options; I had been accepted to the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Calhoun, Elisabeth Irwin, and the music program at Edward R. Murrow, and (2) I had realized Bard was not the ideal school.

I have decided on Elisabeth Irwin, a progressive private school that focuses in the arts and humanities. The closest competition was American Studies, a school focused on American history, which is ranked number 19 on the U.S News and World Report best public high schools in the U.S list. The list comforted me, even though I knew the meaninglessness of it, and was a great thing to say my peers, the majority of which see nothing wrong with the listings. For the record, it’s 12 slots above Stuyvesant, a school considered to be the best of the best.

I decided against American Studies after we got significant aid from Elisabeth Irwin, and after a test run commute, when I realized that a twice daily 80-minute subway ride to the Bronx was unreasonable. I am thrilled with the choice, and now am amused seeing the process in retrospect. The flaws and the inaccuracies have become apparent.

An unappealing visual aspect in a person may effect whether they are accepted in an interview, or a test taker may get two points off because they didn’t bubble in their Scantron sheet dark enough. Is it right that chance can dictate the education and hence the future of so many innocent students?

Of course, to get through life one has to acknowledge these faults in “systems” and forget about them for the sake of happiness; these flawed processes are so abundant that it would be hard to argue with every one.

I’ve realized that when applying for something, everyone needs to understand that a lot of it is a crapshoot, and while I may be exaggerating the flaws because I’m – how do I put this delicately? – pissed off at the city and individual schools for the outcome that came to me, it concerns me that most people are unaware of the extent to which chance and inaccuracies characterize the process.

And, to add to the chaotic process, it seems possible that there was a home school bias. I was accepted to progressive private schools, and didn’t do as well with public ones; I was not admitted to LaGuardia Arts, a performing arts high school, to the surprise of musician friends and teachers. When saying these things I worry that I am coming off as high-handed, which is really a euphemism for pompous. I am stating my thoughts, my emotions, and my opinions, and I strongly encourage people not to take me too seriously.

Often I am frustrated by the lack of understanding and open mindedness of my peers. For one, the idea of a school’s greatness can be relative. Harvard may be ranked one of the highest schools, but for an artsy student used to a small environment, the school is not the best choice, despite the reputation.

Some of my friends were accepted to Hunter, Stuyvesant, Bard, and take that to mean more than it should. It does, of course, mean they were, perhaps, a little lucky, a good test taker, happened to interview better, or (I’m not ruling it out by any means) smarter than me.

I want to point out the fact that, as previously established within the LearnMeProject and by others, evaluations made by institutions are not as helpful or important as your own opinions. People, including myself, too often get caught up in the opinions of others. It seems that kids, especially, become overly concerned with the public’s perception of themselves. A ranking of best schools means more to many than their enjoyment and learning.

I have, recently and accidentally, become obsessed with “Kincaid Reading Level,” the grade level Apple computers think you are writing at. Until I came to my senses, this was important to me. I came to my senses when I wrote in an experimental sentence: “Inexplicably so, the consistently responsive mechanization of the .02 percent of Americans induces quixotic debauchery in the 3,000 Senegalese citizens.” This was my highest ever grade score, despite the sentence being incomprehensible.

I sometimes make an effort to voice my opinion to my friends about schools in general, but for the most part I don’t, letting them choose their own beliefs. My two years of homeschooling have made the value of self-motivation and self-evaluation apparent to me. I conclude with the hope that many others will come to recognize these values too, and will use them to lead a more productive life. I also hope I haven’t come to all the wrong conclusions.

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