My YouTube account’s Home page is a minefield
HOW I GOT INTO…
My YouTube homepage is a minefield. I can’t ever scroll for more than fifteen seconds without seeing words too familiar, usually in all caps: “HOW I GOT INTO…” or the equally flashy “College decisions reaction ft. Harvard acceptance”. These videos are part of a niche in the college admissions content net that exists on the internet, and, as the titles summarize, are mostly consisted of college-related content created and curated by high school students who go through the process of receiving their results on camera, and often detail their Common App file with excruciating details after they get said offers.
Every time I see one of these videos, with a picture of emotional teenagers surrounded by the logos of prestigious schools I recognize in a matter of seconds, my fingers tingle with the curiosity of seeing that 17-year-old, just like I will be in very few months (but we don’t talk about that, I’m in denial), achieve what most of us only dream of. I have to admit this impulse is stronger than me and I very often cave, the conflicting thoughts of “I know exactly what will happen and what student profile this person has” and “who knows if there is something different about this one?” reigning in my mind. And let me tell you, there is nothing different about that next one I might click on, but I get the pleasing feeling of living vicariously through another person for thirteen minutes nonetheless. That’s what matters. Right?
Watching college-related content has been a shameful addiction of mine for a couple of years. I binge-watch the videos in which these teenagers cry and yell and jump at the acceptances they receive from dream schools. I then eagerly (but equally shamefully) click on their channels and search for the sequel, the video most of them record after their screaming and yelling are out on the internet: the “how I got into…” ones. I scrutinize every extracurricular, every AP score, and every Common App essay, paying close attention to what made those students stand out to Yale, Harvard, UPenn, Columbia, or whatever other university follows the three dots on the video’s title. And then, just like the depression following the coming off the high of a drug, anxiety kicks in every time, as if on queue. Because the truth is, I am 99% of the time staring at the face of a high school student who got 4s and 5s on every AP test they have ever taken and 1500+ on the SAT, founded an NGO, or (most often and) won a national/international award in their field of interest. I then, naturally, get absolutely desperate, because I hate SAT Math and most definitely have not founded an NGO or won the Nobel Prize in my field of interest - I don’t even know what my field of interest is in the first place.
Despite all of the discomfort, however, I can deal with short-term anxiety; the problem is that these specks of information I have been regularly exposed to are mounting up to a generalized terror of the application process. Applying to get my secondary degree education in a country thousands of kilometers away from my home is already scary enough, but the amount of data I have consumed through YouTube has created in me a paralyzing fear of going through this process because I don’t see myself reflected in it. Decision reactions can undoubtedly be very useful to get a general sense of what broad profile each type of school is looking for; however, the disadvantages are at least numerous. It has taken me a lot of time to realize that, in fact, this community has the potential to be especially harmful because it is reporting on accurate information that, paradoxically, amounts to false misconceptions.
Now, no one is destroying their futures by watching college videos: it is often a fun and always an emotional experience - it is countless the number of times I have cried along with the student on my screen -, and they can serve as a powerful tool for motivation. I am only offering my perspective as someone who has not even gone through the process yet, so take it all with a grain of salt: this is a reflection of how I see the world of college admissions now, as a junior who has found herself suddenly being engulfed in this process I still don’t know how to deal with. My intention with this article is not to hypocritically complain about these videos I still watch once in a while, but to make the college content aficionados think a little bit further about what you are seeing - and not lose hope if it makes everything look impossible.
Do I have to have a 4.5 GPA?
My first problem with these videos I despise and am at the same time obsessed with is that the depiction of the average student absolutely deviates from the truth. The assertion that human beings have a natural inclination to what stands out, a curiosity to try to understand the outliers that don’t quite fit, is common knowledge; but my understanding is that we don’t always necessarily perceive that pattern being repeated in our daily lives. The videos that go viral on YouTube are always, without almost any exception, that of the individuals we struggle to interpret: the geniuses, the ones who balance everything - academics, sports, extracurriculars, jobs - with a mastery that is extraordinary and leaves us bothered because, well, it shouldn’t be legal. The content that always shows up first when typing out simply “college decisions reaction” are those that often exceed one hundred thousand views, those of 16-year-old prodigies who get into the hardest schools, or the writing prodigies with near-perfect essays. I am not trying in any way to claim that there is anything wrong with a person that achieves these marks, it is admirable; the problem is that if a 9th grader types out these words, those are the videos they will see first. On YouTube, most people are students of the highest caliber, and what we don’t see in their minutes of glory getting those letters are the years of effort they put into that. Regardless of these high schoolers’ academic inclinations, getting to that level is not easy for anyone, but that’s hard to see when victory has come already.
College decision reactions leave viewers with a feeling of all-or-nothing; the brain can unconsciously associate the admission process with 4.5 GPAs and National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists very easily, and that is the biggest problem. A highly impressionable 14-year-old consuming this kind of content will, naturally, start assuming that that’s what is needed to get into college, and the implications of such understanding can be very dangerous. Because the truth is, not everyone likes academics or has an inclination for such, but the urgency of these videos makes it seem like that is the only path for going to a college that is a great fit. Of course, academics play a huge part in it and that effort is extremely important, but that is not everything these schools look at - and even if it were, there are universities that don’t require astronomical grades for a chance to be accepted.
Are there only Ivies in the US?
The second issue I have found with college decision reactions is the fact that it absolutely sucks for university research: as much as I have tried to vary the videos I watch, I can’t help but see the same schools being repeated over and over again. The Ivies, Vanderbilt, Duke, Notre Dame, Rice, Emory, and a handful of others come to mind immediately, all amazing schools - but also all with an under 20% acceptance rate. This repetitiveness is expected: the most academically competitive students - the ones who go viral - tend to apply to the most academically competitive schools, but that leaves the rest of us mere mortals without a clue as to where else we should also be applying. The presence of these selective universities is what draws our attention, but also what limits our understanding of the college system in the US as prospective applicants. Not all universities are as hard to get into as these ones, and that does not mean they are “bad” or aren’t worth considering; there are small liberal arts colleges, there are design and art institutes, there are large public research universities; there are thousands and thousands of options ranging from less than 5 to 100% acceptance rates. College YouTube represents one very specific student body, and they, in turn, usually speak for one very specific group of colleges; it is hard to keep in mind that there are other realities outside of that and other strong universities out there that don’t get as much recognition as they should.
The college decisions reaction corner of YouTube also plays into a narrative many students - including me - struggle to break free from: that we must go to a super-recognized college to do well in life. I don’t want to go through four more years of academic stress after I graduate high school (which is already stressful enough), to leave and not be able to get a job or get into graduate school, which is without touching upon the average alumni salary. The all-or-nothing vision comes to play once more, since it seems like one must attend an elite university to be okay in life afterward - but that might not be necessarily true. A 2002 research study concluded that, for most college students, the difference in average salary throughout life is “generally indistinguishable from zero”; instead, SAT scores are a better predictor. Thus, it is not necessarily about whether the average person attends one of the top 20 colleges in the United States, but about the intelligence (or at least the type of intelligence favored by society) they display throughout life. It is important to note, however, that going to an extremely selective college is most likely synonymous with a great education, and is especially impactful in the consequent career of people who come from lower-income households; the point is that the possibility of a great path in the student’s field of choice is not necessarily determined by the pretty name of that university on their resume.
I’m an international student. Now what?
One of the great appeals of the college decision reactions content is for prospective applicants like myself, who are given the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of those that were victorious in this process and take some satisfaction out of that. However, this familiarity often experienced by me and other students only goes to a certain point, after which I’m not represented at all: I’m Brazilian, and most of the content we see comes from American students - after all, those are American universities and it makes sense that the demographics mostly represented is national. And that is not to say that there aren’t videos like these filmed by international applicants, either; it’s just that most of the few I did manage to find showed very different realities than all of those acceptances I was seeing. Some of these videos are dream crushers and soul-breakers, and some of them are especially hopeful; the point is that the application process for international students is not the same - financial documents are different, there are definitely translation impairments, some universities require extra interviews and tests - and that can be hard to see from most videos. The colleges repeated in most videos are great, but not all offer financial aid for international students; the activities and extracurriculars high school students tend to have in their curriculums aren’t always available here. The content produced for international students seeking to apply to universities abroad, especially in the US, is a valuable community, but one that is very hard to find and that, since there is not nearly as much search, does not get nearly as much engagement.
I have sought solace about the difficulty of college application in this college content community, but many times have left it with more confusion than I previously felt. This type of content is like pollution within my mind, a lot of information that often brings me more harm than good and fogs my vision as to what I should be doing or feeling or experiencing. It’s hard to know the extent to which I should be seeking and storing this type of individualized information or erasing it all and focusing only on myself, but what the changes in the application process brought by COVID-19 and the test-optional trend going forward have shown us is that universities are taking an increasingly individual approach as to who they let in or not, trying to go beyond SAT scores and see what each student stands out for. It seems like a cliché coming from anyone, and especially from a person who hasn’t gone through this yet, but what I’m trying to do is focus on what I can control and move forward, not overthinking too much the astronomical GPAs of the students being let into these amazing universities, and trying to figure out what I like doing and turning that into my extracurriculars (for the most part).
Will I stop watching college decisions reaction videos and interacting with this kind of content online? Probably not - it’s too entertaining and there is nothing like timidly preserving a flicker of hope that the screaming teenager will be me someday. However, what I am trying to do is use these platforms to find the information that helps me feel more confident in my ability to go through this process, as well as reduce the amount of sensationalist content I consume. To my fellow college decision reactions binge-watchers, below is a list of influencers and content that have helped ease my mind about the process. I hope we, someday, get to be the kids happy with our college acceptances, no matter where we get into or if we’re in front of a camera or not.
→ YouTube channels:
Vitor Lacerda (Instagram @ovitorlacerda)
College Essay Guy
→ Instagram pages: