Contemplating college applications, from Morocco: A personal essay

A scantron and pencil
Ariel Lung/Staff

“Did you apply to Harvard?”


“Why is UC Berkeley so expensive?”

“What was your SAT score?”

The summer had barely begun and I was already inundated by these ever-so-nauseating questions. Three days before, I had landed in the capital city of Rabat, Morocco, and began exploring the bustling streets of market stalls and the winding lanes of streetside cafes.

In all the fun of scavenging through markets for wares, picking off scabs of intricate henna from my fingers and watching pink-streaked sunsets framed by palace walls, I almost forgot that Monday morning I would have to pull on a blazer and head to work. After all, I had signed up for this barrage of college questions. I may have just graduated from high school, but here I was, about to endure the college process once again — at least secondhand.

My internship in Morocco was at a test-taking and college preparation service, and was locally owned by a family who had all graduated from prestigious American universities. Each day I taught in the glass-paned office decorated by banners from Harvard, Yale, MIT and the like. Every surface was scattered with advertisement booklets, featuring glowing pictures of accepted students and promising bourses complètes, or full scholarships.

Every surface was scattered with advertisement booklets, featuring glowing pictures of accepted students and promising bourses complètes, or full scholarships.

Of course, the truth often noted on the test preparation center’s lively Facebook memes page is that only a fraction of the students will make it to U.S. universities, or for another matter, be able to afford them. And an even smaller fraction of the total talented student population of Morocco even has the chance to dream of applying, specifically with the help of a test preparation service.

I taught several classes each day to groups of approximately a dozen students, explaining again and again, the need for students to take SAT practice tests and join extracurricular activities. Without fail, my lessons were met with students’ criticisms of the college application process.

“But it’s not fair,” they would say. “We don’t have extracurriculars like clubs in our school.”

Or, “How can we possibly afford these crazy prices?!” and “Why does the SAT cost an extra $50 for international students?”

I struggled to come up with adequate responses, but could only mutter half-hearted ones. “It’s the way the system is — I’m sorry, I didn’t make it!” or “We just have to try our best.”

Through the cloud of my exhaustion at the end of a long day at the front of a classroom and being bombarded by such questions, parched answers barely able to escape from my mouth after long hours of lecturing, I began to clearly see the flaws in our convoluted college application process.

The first issue I can see with the college application process is the reason for my summer internship’s existence. Why do so many students and families feel the need to hire college counselors and tutors? With so many nuances (Public? Private? FAFSA? Merit?), the process is daunting for a 17-year-old on her own, and even more so for my students in Morocco who had never heard of GPAs or SAT scores. Even in the U.S., we all know that there are dozens of stumbling blocks for students on the road to college, one of those being the sheer confusion of applications.

Colleges and universities seem to be doing their best to solve these issues — programs such as Khan Academy and QuestBridge try to democratize the privileged world of SAT tutoring and fill the gaps. But as we saw in last week’s college admissions scandal, these efforts are far from enough.

The prices of American colleges begin to compound from day one even without pricey college counseling services — SAT fees and applications are to be paid before one even considers tuition. A pair of Dutch college students sharing a train car with me on my way to work in Marrakech, shot me horrified looks when they heard me describe a brief overview of the ins and outs of the system particularly these financial realities. “Our government pays us to go to college!” they cried. “America is crazy.”

Hard to argue with that.

Though my criticisms of our application system are overwhelming, my students also continuously reminded me of some of the benefits of the system. Many of them dream of attending liberal arts colleges, and getting to share their ideas and friendships in a small school setting unlike what they experienced in the competitive worlds of the Moroccan and French systems they described to me. Or, they talked tentatively but excitedly about American football games and the excitement of school spirit at many big universities.

The fact that college counseling services (the SAT tutoring, the essay editing, the college planning) are in such high demand demonstrates the convoluted nature of our crooked system.

Though the college counseling company I worked for did provide some scholarships for students, it’s clear such scholarships cannot possibly go far enough. Not just in Morocco, but also in the U.S., college admissions are far more accessible to those from highly educated and high-income backgrounds.

The fact that college counseling services (the SAT tutoring, the essay editing, the college planning) are in such high demand demonstrates the convoluted nature of our crooked system. A recent New York Times article reported that in New York City, a five-year, full-service college admissions counseling package could cost up to $1.5 million. Though the Coalition for College Access, the College Board and the Common App try to move toward a more equal playing ground in college admissions, the truth is the system still privileges those with wealth and power on both a domestic and an international level.

Although my summer of tutoring for the SAT and narrating slideshows of the Common Application may sound like a sheer slice of hell for many recent high school graduates, I loved having the chance to watch my students grow over the months of my Moroccan venture. As I coached my students through long hours of SAT practice tests and pored over the details of their Common Application essays, I grew to know more about them. After class, over steaming cups of classic Moroccan mint tea, we talked about the differences between Morocco and the U.S., our different religions, cultures and languages. We watched American movies (and I tried to explain how dissimilar “Mean Girls” is from actual American high school) and my students, the same age as me for the most part, guided me on long walks through the tiled streets of Rabat, to cafes for cafe au lait and their homes for homemade couscous.

I was tempted to tell all my students to go to school in Canada, but I can’t pretend I won’t be excited to see some of my students here in the U.S. this fall. It is exciting to watch them follow their dreams despite the many challenges that students across the world and in the United States face when applying to college.

Contact Ella Tyler at [email protected].