When I read YA books, I sometimes get the sense that authors are not very familiar with today’s college application process. So often, they make it seem incredibly easy, as if all the protagonist has to do is pick their top school and apply. There are few mentions of “safety schools” or stories of rejection. And money? Somehow, all the protagonists who mention needing financial aid or scholarships seem to magically achieve a full ride. Are authors and publishers out of touch with the changing college landscape? Or are they simply desirous of giving characters a happy ending, no matter how realistic is it? Either way, I am not on board. I want to see stories of high school seniors going through a college application process that more closely resembles what actual teens may be going through.
One of my main pet peeves with how the college application is generally depicted is that so many protagonists seem to be intent on applying to Ivy League schools. I do not have any statistics on this, but Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia seem to be featured heavily. Other prestigious schools like Georgetown sometimes also appear. I do not know why this is–perhaps authors are just choosing schools with name recognition? But I would love to see authors feature more local schools or community colleges or even just schools they made up. Because it is not realistic that all these YA characters seem to be getting into such high-ranking schools.
It is not easy to get into an Ivy League college. A student cannot simply “work hard” or “get good grades” or “ace the SAT” and automatically get admitted into a top school like YA makes it appear (assuming the books mention grades at all). 43,330 students applied to Harvard’s class of 2023 and the school admitted 4.6%. Yale admitted 6.3% of applicants to the class of 2022. And Princeton admitted 5.8% of applicants to their class of 2023. Someone could be valedictorian, president of six clubs, and a star athlete, and still not be admitted to their top college choice with those odds. But YA books continue to write plotlines where protagonists dream of going to Harvard–and they almost always make it.
YA books also tend to make it appear like getting scholarships and financial aid is rather easy–and that these scholarships will inevitably cover the full cost of tuition. I do not think I have ever read a YA book where the protagonist was agonizing over taking out student loans or sad that the scholarship they received would barely make a dent in their tuition. In real life, however, I know plenty of people who received scholarships–sometimes multiple ones–and still graduated with debt. For perspective, the data from the class of 2018 shows that about 69% of college students took out loans. And the average student loan for the class of 2018 debt was $29,200. This means about only 31% of students will be loan-free or debt-free, but YA protagonists somehow always seem to be among this minority.
YA books also tend to ignore the details of actually applying to college. There is the agony, of course, of taking standardized tests, writing the application essay, filling out a bunch of forms, and trying to figure out all the financial aid papers. There is also the issue of application fees. Students normally need to pay just for the privilege of having someone look at their materials. Harvard, for example, currently charges $75 to apply and Yale charges $80 to apply. It would be refreshing to see some YA protagonists get upset about these outrageous fees, or go through the process of trying to apply for a fee waiver. However, I have not yet seen a single book even mention that these fees exist.
I understand that authors probably want their books to end somewhat happily, for the most part–YA readers usually want this, too. However, I think it would be not only realistic but also helpful for YA books to depict the college application process more accurately. It would give teens a clearer idea of what to expect, which would be particularly helpful for those who do not know anyone who has recently applied. They would have a clearer idea of the chances of getting into a prestigious institution, the cost to apply to a lot of schools, and the cost of actually attending. Financial literacy is not really taught in schools and many students probably are not equipped to calculate the return on investment of their college educations. It would be good for them to at least start thinking a little bit about the possibility of having to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt–and about whether their career path will actually enable them to repay it. Because, for most students, the chances of getting a full ride to their top choice is not anywhere near as likely as YA books make it seem.
What do you think? Do YA books depict the college application process accurately or realistically?