Psychologist and writer Andrew Solomon first confronted the absurdity of a school admissions frenzy earlier than most parents across the country when he was going through the process of his five-year-old son's kindergarten applications.
"The process felt to me very ex cathedra," Solomon, the author of Far From The Tree: Parents, Children And The Search For Identity, said during the April 21 New America Foundation panel, "How Are Contemporary Notions of Success Impacting the American Family?" "There are a limited number of schools. There are an enormous number of people who want their children to get into those schools. The competition is stiff and complicated... And the pronouncement that you receive -- your child's admission or non-admission -- appears already at that stage to say, 'This child is destined for success, and this child only for sadness and failure.'"
He spoke on a panel of experts in education and family life who convened to discuss the pressure facing children to succeed at all ages based on an increasingly impossible standard. The panel's members were Solomon; Anne Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of the New America Foundation; Lisa Yvette Waller, Ph.D., High School Director at The Dalton School; Melvin White, Lead Counsel, Litigation & Risk Management, Clearspire; and Liza Mundy, Director, Breadwinning and Caregiving Program, New America. All agreed that the same characteristics continue to be at play -- only with greater reach, more intensity and higher stakes -- during the college admissions process. In this paradigm, admission is a sign of success; rejection a sign of unworthiness and future turmoil.
"This seems like a narrow definition for success for someone who is 18," said Solomon. "It seemed a much more narrow, and in fact ludicrous, definition of success for someone who is five."
However, a more nuanced definition of success for children -- one that takes into account their happiness and individual strengths -- can be more difficult for parents to conceptualize and help their kids strive for. It's tempting for parents to view college admission as a sign of their child's success (or lack thereof) because it's easily quantifiable, explained Solomon. The child either gets in, or they get rejected, and an enormous amount of weight is then attached to either outcome.
"Whether your child is happy is a very complicated measurement," said Solomon. "You may believe your child is happy when they aren't. But you know whether your child got into Princeton -- that's very clear, and I think that clarity ends up formalizing a sense of success."
And increasingly, they're not getting in -- at least not into their dream schools. Competition for coveted slots at the nation's most elite institutions hit a historic high this year, with the most selective, Stanford University, turning away a colossal 95 percent of applicants.
The alarming pressure of college admissions and unreasonable ideals of success has reached something of a fever pitch, taking a high physical and mental health toll on teenagers, whose stress levels have now surpassed that of adults, according to the 2014 Stress In America Survey. And it's spurring a growing conversation among parents: How are we defining success for our children, and is it time to broaden our idea of what it means for our children to live a "successful" life?
"There's a way that college becomes emblematic of something that people want for their kids, and it can create all kinds of anxiety," said Waller during the New America discussion. "There's the sense that kids should be at the top of their game across all domains... one has to interrogate that."
When the dreaded thin envelopes arrive this year, parents facing their childrens' college rejections come face to face with their own unreasonable standards of success for their children.
Here are five reasons why parents should embrace their children's college rejections.
College acceptance is not a measure of your child's current or future success.
Countless successful people and a good deal of statistical evidence suggest that a degree from a prestigious college isn't a guarantee of or a prerequisite for success. And this has never been more true than in the current environment in which thousands of highly accomplished students aren't gaining entry to these institutions for the smallest differences and most minute deviations in GPA or standardized test score. Even admissions officers say that the process is, essentially, a crapshoot. If some of the best and the brightest are being denied access, it may begin to erode the meaningfulness of entrance.
"Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in," the New York Times reported earlier this month. And, as the New York Times noted, the pool of high-achieving, hard-driving applicants has only continued to grow in recent years as enrollment to American universities has dropped only marginally.
It's not about you.
"Yes, rejection builds character," family and life columnist Lisa Belkin writs in the New York Times. "No, no one can go through life getting everything they want. Yes, it always seems to turn out for the best. No, parents can’t protect children from bruised feelings forever. No, this is not really about the parents at all."
But as Belkin notes, that doesn't make it any easier for a parent to watch. She quotes one blogger whose son had been rejected from a Manhattan private school:
"The phone calls and letters letting me know that no one felt he was a “good match” for their school left me flattened. I was more depressed and lethargic over the last few days than I’ve been in years. I kept saying to myself, “How could they pass on such a terrific kid?”
Colleges and private schools pass up on thousands of terrific kids every year, and it's a parents' job to remember that this doesn't make their child a single shred less terrific.
Success is specific to your child's individual potential.
New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter, who grew up in a college town, said that she witnessed a number of kids of academics who "flamed out" because the pressure to succeed academically was too great. "It really blighted them," she said.
This led Slaughter to refine her definition of success for her own children: To creating a life that is meaningful to them and their individual talents and desires.
"I would define success as the ability to fulfill your potential," said Slaughter. "As a parent, my children have the ability to fulfill whatever their potential is."
It's what your kid does after high school, not where they go to college, that matters.
It's easy for high school students -- and their parents -- to view being rejected within the context of a web of future catastrophic events. If you don't get into the right college, the thinking goes, you won't have a good career, you'll struggle to pay the rent, you'll never attract the right spouse, and then rest of your life will quickly spiral downwards until you have nothing left.
"There are messages and pressures that extend beyond the family and beyond the classroom that [suggest] for a young scholar, the college run is a kind of indicator of how life will be," said Waller.
But state-school graduates and college dropouts (hint: Steve Jobs) can go on to wildly successful careers, while many Ivy League graduates struggle with overwhelming student loan debt, underemployment and lack of career fulfillment.
As Jessica Kane of HuffPost College notes, a number of successful people -- including Meredith Vieira, Warren Buffett, Katie Couric and Steven Spielberg -- got rejected from their dream schools, but getting turned down may have been the exactly what sparked their later successes.
Rejection breeds resilience.
Being rejected from his dream school may feel traumatic to your teenager, but it's a experience that may ultimately help them mature and become more resilient. We become adept at dealing with life's challenges by being faced with them and finding a way to continue on.
"Many students can't imagine a world where there isn't an adult hand guiding them," said Solomon, noting that the parental over-involvement that many high-achieving students experience can hinder the development of resiliency and personal agency.
College admissions time is an excellent opportunity for your kids to learn about one of life's great truths: Rejection sucks, but it's something that every one of us must learn to deal with, because it's something we'll face over and over again. Few successful people got they are just by sailing through life without any negative experiences or setbacks -- the way your child deals with not getting what she wants could help her to actually become more successful in adulthood.
Success is about more than money and power.
Intense pressure for college admissions and a ruthless drive to succeed at all costs are teaching young people to value self-interest over collaboration and compassion -- a quality that may not do them well once the admissions game is over.
As The Homework Myth author Alfie Kohn wrote in the New York Times, "Gratuitous competition teaches students that everyone else is an obstacle to their own success."
Parents should be teaching their children to work with others effectively and to foster meaningful professional and personal connections -- any definition of success that precludes strong social ties is one that will, in reality, be more closely associated with misery and regret.
"Being meaningfully connected to others as a central component of success," said Waller.
"For any person, a successful life involves a balance of all the different facets of what it means to be a human being," Melvin White, lead counsel of litigation & risk management for the law firm Clearspire, said during the New America discussion. "Family, faith, and personal achievement in a meaningful way."