Apple Trees, Hammocks, and College Prep

I’d like to address high school juniors today, those who are at the end of their 11th-grade year. Some may have already graduated, although at this date it’s a bit early. Those who have graduated (or will soon do so) become so-called “rising seniors.” They will ascend to the highest level of high school student. They will also likely enter into that fearsome fall frenzy known as college admissions.

Since the 1980s I have worked with high schoolers and their families, helping them deal with both the preparation for and execution of the college admissions process. Across those decades I have met a wonderful group of young men and women who have had definite goals for their higher education and future. Along with these fine young people have come an equally interesting group of parents, many of whom displayed various levels of anxiety about their sons’ and daughters’ chances to gain admission to the most highly selective colleges and universities in the nation.

I was a member of this group once when my daughter and son went through the same process years ago. I endured many of the qualities I see in the parents I deal with. My wife shared those feelings and frustrations with me but not to the degree that I did. I didn’t like going through it and I try to counsel anxious Moms and Dads about allowing the pressure to affect their lives more than it should.

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The frenzy surrounding the annual fall rite of applying to college is reaching a kind of hideous peak, featuring all-out GPA wars and SAT scores. As I follow the latest pulse of college admissions by reading through the various threads on the College Confidential discussion forum, I become more and more concerned about the childhoods and well being of today’s young people.

Of course the specific demographic of high schoolers seeking admission to America’s top colleges may be a tiny percentage of the entire number of high school seniors. Keep in mind, though, that I regularly get inquiries from 7th and 8th graders who want to know what they have to do to get into Princeton, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, etc. These queries are at once amusing and frightening.

I have to wonder about what kind of experiences these young folks are having as they grow up in our current age of privacy-sacrificing, bully-infested social media and the rolling thunder of technological advancement. I think of my childhood, when during those wonderful long summers between school years, I would relax in the hammock under the big apple tree in our back yard. I would take a pile of books and magazines and read about Mickey Mantle and the Yankees (no offense to you Red Sox fans). I would laugh at Archie, Jughead, Moose, Betty, Veronica, and Mr. Weatherbee while waiting for Sam, Tom, Matt, or Kim to drop by and get me to go for a bike ride down to Ross’s store to buy some candy.

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Not so today it seems. I see young people scrambling to get into “prestigious” summer programs that will enhance their already impressive student profiles. I see them traveling to foreign countries either as experiential tourists or prospective helpers of suppressed minorities. Their summers seem not to allow them to exhale from the stress of a competitive school year where their class schedule may have been planned to give them a GPA/class-rank edge over their peers in an escalating spiral.

As I was thinking about all this a while back, I came across an article by Alia Wong in The Atlantic that rang a carillon of bells for me. Where College Admissions Went Wrong captures much of what I see and feel about the frenzy of getting into college these days. The article’s subtitle states, “Far too many students are learning to do whatever it takes to get ahead—even if that means sacrificing individuality, health, happiness, ethical principles, and behavior.”

I couldn’t agree more. This is the second of a three-part series addressing the issue of elite college admissions. Part one (beautifully titled), The Absurdity of College Admissions — “How did getting into an elite school become a frenzied, soul-deadening process?” is here.

If you are a parent with a child who may be interested in attending a top college and you have been wondering what this frenzy fuss is all about, these articles can more than enlighten you. To whet your possibly curious appetite, here are some key excerpts from Ms. Wong’s articles:

– … Only about 3 percent of 18-year-olds in the U.S. go to schools that admit fewer than half their applicants, making the “college-admissions mania,” as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson once put it, “a crisis for the 3 percent.” …

– … critics say that mania has even spread into and shaped American culture, often distorting kids’ (and parents’) values, perpetuating economic inequality, and perverting the role of higher education in society as a whole …

– … As The New York Times’s columnist Frank Bruni bluntly put it, “many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions.” …

– … “Instead of being a wonderful exploration of the future and something that’s exciting and dynamic and happy, it’s a burden, a thing to be feared, a thing to be endured.” …

– … Instead of preparing themselves for college—or more importantly, for life—students spend all of their pre-college years preparing themselves for the moment of admission …

– … The admissions mania has, arguably, only gotten worse. Students today still spend months and sometimes even years of grueling work to secure a spot, spending thousands on test prep and college consultants, drafting essays and enrolling all kinds of extracurriculars, just to get into the running …

– … And at the other end of all that work is what many critics describe as a lottery—even the most qualified students are merely gambling to get in …

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– … As the Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier put it in her book The Tyranny of Meritocracy, the SAT “best reflects our national obsession with the moment of college admission, rather than with the post-graduation missions of those who attend our colleges and universities.” …

– … Part of what’s attractive about going to an Ivy League institution is not so much the wonderful undergraduate education, but the fact that it’s just really hard to get in …

– … And the pressure is starting earlier and earlier. Sarah Ford, a senior at the New England elite prep school Milton Academy, said she’s been thinking about college since she was in the fifth grade, when she took a test to qualify for Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, or TIP, an initiative designed to search for and support gifted children …

– … Admission, Cole said, often depends on “which person in the admissions committee reads your application; what their biases are, their presuppositions; whether they’ve had a bad egg-salad sandwich that day or read too many applications. These are all things that enter our decision-making process as human beings.” …

– … “It is [a lottery],” Cole said, “but no one is willing to admit it.”

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Something’s gotta give with this situation. I don’t know when or how, but our sons and daughters deserve a better fate than growing up into feeling crushed because of admission odds that are beyond their comprehension.

My advice to parents out there who may be nudging their middle school or even (perish the thought!) elementary school children toward the “Ivies,” is to put a hammock and an apple tree in your back yard and provide your progeny with a pile of good books and some peace and quiet.

Look what Issac Newton accomplished in such a setting. Forego the frenzy!

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.