07/07/2010 09:09 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Peach Trees, Pressure and College Admittance

Cue scene: A mother and daughter hang their heads in shame, limply holding hands while suppressing pent up feelings of frustration. You might be wondering if they've committed some sort of crime. Have they blackmailed someone? Are they murderers? Don't worry, even the director is confused. "Cut!" he yells out. "I don't understand-this play is about teenage life! Why the moping?" The young actress raises her somber eyes and sighs, "You're getting it mixed up with the 1965 version. This one's 2010."

And for many teenagers, this script is sadly not one of fiction. SAT exams, AP testing, personal essays, college applications, SAT 2 subject tests, and rigorous core classes are thrust at us throughout our final years of youth. And it all occurs during a period of time when we're still figuring out who we are and what the heck we want to do with our lives. Not to mention the extracurricular endeavors, community service projects and sports participation deemed absolutely necessary in order to attend a university of high caliber. And no, I'm not talking Ivy League -- the college competition has expanded so rapidly that graduating classes are becoming increasingly worried about even gaining admittance to their "safety schools." You know, the ones that some unfortunate young adult mentions they attend at holiday parties, and everyone looks away or makes some vague comments along the lines of, "Oh ... well that's nice."

As for the scene you were envisioning a few paragraphs ago, the reason behind the daughter's continuous sulking is the fact that she was rejected from a prestigious summer program. Like a camp? You smirk. Why is that so important? Perhaps because it's a precursor to future college rejections coming in the mail. Or maybe it's a blatant reminder that she just isn't a strong competitor in the field of admissions. And so she's thrust herself into a panic; if she can't get into a mere summer program, how will she get into Brown? Or Northwestern? Or USC? Apparently her GPA is not high enough and her SAT scores are slightly above average at best. She didn't invent some magnificent charity program, she didn't spend all her summers building schools in other countries, she didn't engulf herself in a mountain of after-school activities, and even though she claims she's a singer she couldn't even land a supporting role in the school musical. So here's our protagonist, frozen in fear and self-hatred while her mother feels she failed as a parent. They both want to give up and abandon the whole process altogether, but the names of top schools still linger in their minds, offering a taunting reality check.

But there must be a way, right? She's worked so hard, she's done her best -- what can one do? These thoughts all culminate in a desperate scramble to salvage some strategy towards getting accepted. By now, the director has become sympathetic towards his two stars, and aids them in scanning a mental checklist of all the people they know who recently built libraries at Dartmouth or Wesleyan. "Are you cordial with any alumni who would write a killer letter of recommendation?" He asks. The mother squints for a moment, then lights up with excitement as she swivels to face her daughter. "You're 1/86th Cherokee Indian! Schools love diversity, right? Write your personal statement about finding your own roots! Just remember to wear some feathers when you go in to be interviewed -- remind them that you are a minority. And what about your anti-depression medicine? We can incorporate that in a creative way and paint you as some tenacious fighter! Ooh I know! Your eating disorder! You lost thirty pounds in two months -- now that shows dedication. Just tell them you'll transfer that motivation towards schoolwork and you'll definitely get accepted."

If you find this conversation pathetic, then you're absolutely right. But resorting to manipulative tactics is only natural for many who are desperate for that sublime liberal arts education. It's just sad how things have changed so drastically these past few decades. Right now I can vividly envision my mom telling me stories about her adolescence; afternoons climbing peach trees and playing tag with the neighborhood kids in Kansas, plus campfires and kickball and picnics in the shade. But throughout the more recent years, the natural rhythm of being a child has been so skewed that we find ourselves feeling guilty at the thought of watching Gossip Girl instead of fitting in that fifth hour of studying. Where did spontaneity go? And what about adventure? I can confidently say that for many people I know, the most excitement they've experienced the past year of high school has been a change in the cafeteria menu.

So for the families approaching the infamous junior year or even beginning that leap into high school, I advise you to prepare yourselves for a crash course of chaos. The only thing which can guide one through it all is self-confidence and trust. Hold on to what you love and remember that at the end of the day no school can define who you are, whether it be Princeton or Pepperdine. Personally, I don't see what the problem is with having a bit of a Walt Whitman-esque sensibility. Who knows, maybe under the section entitled "after-school activities" on the Common Application, I'll scrawl in big block letters: exploring.