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College Admissions: A 'Game' Everyone Can Win

12/23/2013 12:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2014
  • Josh Stephens College counselor and specialist in college application essays.

college admissions

Last week, the first big tranche of high school seniors found out where they're headed next year, as colleges released their Early Action and Early Decision notifications. Those who got deferred, and those who have been waiting to submit Regular Decision applications, will remain in excruciating limbo for the next four months. Or so the story goes.

In response to a HuffPost blog I wrote a few weeks ago, a commenter described the anxiety that often clouds not only this process, but also students' entire lives. A parent of a high school senior, she wrote that the college application process "gives [her] hives."

She continued:

I am aghast at this Mr./Miss America contest these kids have to enter just to get into a state university, never mind the Ivies. My family is trying not to get caught up in the hype, created, I'm convinced, by the colleges themselves... kids are dragging themselves, exhausted, to school everyday, just waiting for the Game of High School to be over, so that they can start the Game of College... No one ruined my high school years like this. Is childhood for losers now?

I sympathize with her, and with many other parents. She's far from the only one to lament the ruination of childhood. College-related anxiety often seems crushing. Yet blaming students' anxiety on colleges is like blaming rush-hour traffic on dinner. I'm not sure it's fair to implicate places where the kids have yet to set foot. I mean, who's been looking after those kids for the past 18 years?

A Culture of Pressure

Needless to say, a lot happens between the dawn of kindergarten and the college application deadline. Much of adolescent and family culture these days foments pressure, tension, stress and whatever other type of emotional discomfort you'd care to name. Parents, teachers, school administrators and coaches all feed into it. And, of course, kids themselves are often their own biggest sources of pressure.

If you walk the halls of an elite high school, you know that the Ivies don't need to "hype" themselves. They already have all the help they need.

What's ironic about pressure is that it's both depressing and self-defeating. Whenever a student of mine would complain about stress or lament the odds of getting into this or that college, I always asked the same question: If you really want to get into a school, how is stressing out going to help?

In my experience, as both a classroom teacher and a college counselor, the students who get into the most selective schools are often the ones who worry the least. They accept that the process is out of their control, and even a little random. And, importantly, they are often the ones who enjoy academics, and who don't see education as just a series of exercises.

Smart Choices and True Selves

The thing about pressure is that it's a two-way street. Yes, kids face "pressure" because of schools' meager admission rates. But they create pressure when they decide to strive, sometimes unwisely, for those schools in the first place.

College admission isn't nearly as mysterious as we make it out to be. Applicants can look at average GPA's and test scores of admitted students, and get a rough idea of whether a given school is worth all of that mental energy. Stress can disappear when students set reasonable goals, and learn to be happy with them (Stanford Alumni Magazine recently ran one of the best pieces I've ever seen explaining the selection process).

I agree that kids should spend more time jamming in their garages, building forts and catching polliwogs -- and less time with smart phones, Twitter and Snapchat -- than they currently do. At the same time, some of the kids who have forgone their "childhood" have done so out of genuine dedication. Some would rather be in the lab than anywhere else, and some have written incredible novellas and composed beautiful minuets (then there are kids who would rather complain. See the infamous Suzy Weiss). They have good reason to apply to selective schools, if they so choose.

SAT's and grades aside, a huge part of "being yourself" is knowing whether or not you're "Ivy League material" -- or Chico State material, West Point material, Purdue material, Reed material, or whatever -- and refusing to let anyone else place value judgments on their choices. Is a student going to thrive at a university with a 7 percent acceptance rate? Or is he going to go to a school with a 50 percent acceptance rate, love every minute of it, and graduate into a fantastic career? Until students answer these questions honestly, then any talk of "being yourself" is moot.

Too often, students make anxiety part of their identities, as if it's a badge of honor above all other virtues. But what about the honor that comes from ignoring stress? What about the freedom that comes from telling a teacher: "This isn't my best work, but it's what I could do in the time I had"? What about accepting that taking a hike through autumn leaves can be just as worthwhile -- if not more so -- as suffering through vector calculus? What about ignoring all those parents, teachers, friends, admission reps and college counselors who feed into the hype (those people might even include me)?

Summoning this sort of strength isn't easy. American culture is no less tribal than any other is. Peer pressure is primordial. But, fortunately, lives do not depend on English homework. The conformity needed to fell a wooly mammoth or fend off attackers has nothing to do with -- and is, in fact, antithetical to -- the individualism, enthusiasm, curiosity and maturity that students should cultivate if they truly want to find happiness, edification and success.

If college is a "game," this is how you win.

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