Applying to College: Online Forums and the "Chances" Game

09/27/2011 06:58 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

I do not need a blog entry to remind me what I was doing on this day in 2007, because I did the same thing everyday for that entire overly stressful year. I would hurry home from school to open my laptop to the homepage of the College Confidential, spending the subsequent part of the afternoon scrolling through thread after thread, reading frantic posts by similarly college-admissions-obsessed teens.

A section of the forum is titled "What are my chances?," an apt title indeed. What were my chances? Statistics said my top choice schools accepted less than 20 percent of applicants, but I was determined to beat the odds. I figured learning all that I could possibly know about underrepresented minorities and admissions committees (URMs and AdComs online) would help me, even though the former did not even apply in my case.

I was too scared to post anything on the College Confidential, however, fearing that a classmate would trace the combination of extracurricular activities and academic coursework back to me. Looking back though, I should not have worried -- at a certain point all of our overachievements begin to look the same. After all, can individual personality, passion, and skills even be reduced to mere one-line "stats?"

There were the rare "too good to be true" students though, the ones who cured cancer while playing three varsity sports. My self-esteem would drop as I read about these kids, realizing that against them, my chances of admission were reduced to just that: chance.

It was quite possible that some of the posters supplied fictitious information, maybe because it made them feel good or maybe because they find pleasure in the pain of others. College Confidential has no way of filtering the truth from lies -- the overflowing compendium of college-related discussion backfires in this regard, oftentimes striking accomplished teenagers at their most vulnerable as they begin to question their self-worth in comparison to others.

But I cannot bash the concept of college admissions discussion forums when I myself learned so much from them. In College Confidential's network of parents, professionals, and students, I learned more about the college application process than my school counselor would have ever been able to tell me. Although I do not believe a "hook" had anything to do with my admission to Brown, I now know what one is.

I stopped visiting the College Confidential page in April of my senior year, once admissions decisions rolled in. But the following year it all came flooding back to me when I recognized one of the last names on the roster for my organic chemistry lab section as someone's College Confidential username. The last name was unusual enough that I was fairly certain it was the person from the Brown University thread a year before. I remember smiling to myself when I made the match, pleasantly surprised that a kindred spirit was close.

An introduction did not happen when we were assigned to hoods on opposite sides of the room. Later in the semester, however, fate seated me next to this individual during our organic chemistry midterm. As I forlornly flipped through the last five pages of the exam, unable to answer any of the questions, my College Confidential comrade burst into silent tears.

I sat awkwardly frozen, uncertain about what to do. While I had read posts about how badly this individual wished to attend Brown and was that she had far more potential than any organic chemistry midterm could ever measure, the fact remained that I did not actually know her beyond facial recognition from our common laboratory section.

That's the thing about these college admissions forums -- there remains an inherent disconnect with reality. Applying to college is real and the pain of rejection feels even more real, but these forums add a level of illusion to the process, something I could not make myself see at that point in time. Although College Confidential provides a wealth of information, a bunch of third-party Internet users cannot accurately predict an admission committee's decision, especially when the posters reveal an incomplete version of themselves.

In the case of my organic chemistry "friend," I could not say anything in fear of being accused of cheating. So I cast a sympathetic glance in her direction when I rose to hand in my exam, praying that poor performance on that day would not determine either of our futures.