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April 1, 2015

‘Tis the Season.

This is the time of year for fantastical stories of flying penguins and silly pranks on friends and family. Since my own were little, everything in my sock drawer seems to mysteriously disappear every April 1 only to magically reappear the next day.

But this is also the season for something that isn’t quite as fanciful as missing unmentionables: college admission season.

By now, anybody with a high school junior or senior has probably read Frank Bruni’s March 13th New York Times column “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness.” In this piece, part of a book he has written on the topic, Bruni shares stories of a few talented young men and women who first survive and then later thrive after getting turned down at elite colleges. On underlying problem, he says, is that many of our students have come to equate their self-worth with admission into these highly selective universities. Whereas, many of us working in primary and secondary education like to think we are a part of a much longer end game: to help foster healthy and happy 35-year-olds. The paths to that outcome are many.

What our kids are up against is often referred to as a madness or a mania. I think this is fair, because it also implies that even the most healthy and well adjusted can get caught up. By now, the story is fairly well known. A small and well-publicized number of elite schools are now competing globally for students, making the marketplace more competitive than ever. In addition, helpful tools like the Common Application are making it easier for students to apply to many more schools than ever before.  According to the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, only 9 percent of students applied to seven or more colleges in 1990. By 2011, that number was 29 percent. Students who apply to more than 20 colleges are not uncommon. This leads to ever shrinking acceptance ratios that are under 10% and approaching 5% at the most elite schools.

This can’t help but create a potentially unhealthy environment for our students, feeling they have to do more and more to beat the odds. Sites like College Confidential at first seemed to open up the admissions process, but now seem only to add to the sense of competitive frenzy.

One Cary Academy student used this stress as a jumping off point for an Original Oratory that she wrote and performed during this year’s speech and debate season. She starts with an imaginary college application essay:

“Dear College Admissions Officer,

“In thinking about what to write for this essay I really struggled picking just one topic. I can honestly say I have loved my high school experience. I got to work with incredible teammates and coaches in all three varsity sports I played. I might have to pick track as my favorite since I set the national record in the two mile my freshman year. Unfortunately this dedication to my sports took a toll on my cello practice and I only barely made the National Youth Orchestra. Along with these fantastic out-of-school opportunities, I am incredibly grateful for my curricular opportunities as well. A huge shout out to the math department at my school who found a nearby college to let me take Topics in Geometric Partial Differential Equations. I’m just so grateful that after working so hard on last year’s Oratory it was cited by the Nobel committee as a reason for bringing peace to the Middle East. Well, maybe more like a temporary cease fire.”

More and more students are feeling pressure to craft resumes in high school that don’t really reflect true passions or interests, and as a result are matriculating to college with significant health issues. As our CA student cites in her speech: “The latest Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association finds that teens are mimicking the high stress lives of adults and are ‘setting themselves up for a future of chronic illness.’”

So what to do?

Bruni highlights the healthy way in which the parents of one particular young man kept perspective throughout the process. Their letter of support to their son on the eve of admission notification reassured him that he is not the product of the decisions of an overwhelmed admissions committee.

I’d also add the importance of being a part of a healthy school and community environment. Schools have many subtle and not-so-subtle ways of increasing the stress and competitive environment, from starting college counseling in middle school, to encouraging underclassmen to take multiple AP exams, to ranking students by their GPA. The answer to the college admissions madness is not to double down and go even more mad.

In the end, college counselors can demystify this process and help our students see that there are absolutely fabulous options beyond the top 10 lists that dominate the popular press and social media. When we help our students understand themselves as learners and as people, then they can see themselves as happy and successful in many different places.

Despite the craziness of the application process, this is exactly what colleges are also saying they want from our students. Our Upper School Principal Heather Clarkson recently reported on a panel conversation she attended at the National Association of Independent Schools conference featuring the leaders of four universities. They said they were looking for graduates who:

  • can interact in a community,
  • have perseverance,
  • have good writing and quantitative skills,
  • have a healthy and balanced lifestyle,
  • have the ability to self-reflect and self-assess,
  • and can navigate new situations and act independently.

Thankfully, I do believe that we’ve got the right balance here at Cary Academy. I’ve found myself on more than one occasion describing our environment as “healthy.” So as we move through the April 1 craziness, I might find myself worrying less about our seniors and more about what will happen when The Guardian switches from printed paper to Twitter.