Tuesday, January 26, 2016

College Admission Obsession

Oh, the horror!

The college application anxiety season has begun.

As is traditional, the New York Times launched the first salvo in a January 20 opinion piece.  The writer regretted the tension visited upon high school students, particularly seniors, who were doing their utmost to get into the really, really good colleges.

There were the usual worries:  taking too many Advanced Placement courses, padding the resume with too many community service activities, too many varsity (and off-campus) sports and too many student leadership positions.

Sadly, the writer lamented, students are not searching for their passions.  The result, he speculated, would be top colleges populated by students obsessed with staying on track and not so interested in exploring their true interests or developing their creativity.

If you think about some of the over-achieving young people you have met in recent years, you may conclude that the opinion writer is on to something.


Today's Times editorial page included three letters to the editor expressing reactions to the column.

One came from a professor at a "top school" who suggested a solution:  Each top school should put all qualified candidates' names in a hat and select the winners by lottery.
     It's an appealing idea, but it will never happen.  Top colleges and their alumni have mutual vested interests in believing that the students selected by those colleges are the true creme de la creme.  Thus does the perceived aristocracy maintain itself.

The second letter came from one of those hyper-competitive high school students who objected to the theme of the column.  He insisted that yes, busy as he was, he also was creative and searching for his passion.  So there.

A third letter was penned by a psychologist who said, essentially, there's nothing to be done about it -- no matter how the system is changed, the competition is so keen that it will be with us always.

All the letters to the editor came from the Northeast, of course.

Up Next

As the student selection season continues, there will be future articles.  Seniors who were not admitted early decision to their first-choice schools will be urged not to lose hope and to keep submitting more applications.

When they finally gain admission to not quite tippy-top colleges, the students will be assured that they are not really failures after all.

Finally, there will be articles from sadder-but-wiser parents whose children's lives were not ruined by attending lesser colleges.  These commentaries will advise parents of current high school students that, really, all is not lost -- that many people have successful careers after graduating from less prestigious colleges and even some state universities.

The whole thing will wrap up later in the spring and then be taken up again in early 2017.

It's a tradition in the Northeast, as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano.

The Phenomenon Spreads 

There was a time when this sort of admission concern was observed almost exclusively in the Bo-Wash (Boston-NewYork-Washington) Corridor. But those days are over.

Word has spread.  People in the hinterlands have figured out that some schools may be better launching points than others.   Even when academic programs are of equal value, the resume impact and rolodex potential can vary from college to college, depending perhaps by industry or geography.

So now students from all states and many countries spend high school breaks on nationwide college tours.  Private counseling to help 17-year-olds burnish their bona fides is a booming industry.  There is much talk of finding the right college "fit" for each young student.  There is also palpable yearning on the part of parents for their children to do well in college and, presumably from there, life.

Anyone past the age of 30 who is paying attention can rattle off the names of many people who took a little longer than usual to get traction in school or a career and who have met with impressive success.  I know dozens myself.  It still happens all the time.

What seems to have changed is the confidence that this can happen for any given child.  There seems to be a worry that opportunity is now a zero-sum game with a limited number of golden tickets for each new generation.

People are pushing their children harder.  Their children are pushing themselves harder.

The results boil down to the nationalization of what the Times columnist named: anxiety.

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