"Teens ask for a kinder college admissions process:" Can we listen and help them find a better way?
Updated: Apr 19
There is a genuine mental health crisis among our teens. This article from the LA Times points out some of the source of anxiety in their lives-- college admission worries and the constant noise in their lives about that impending process loom large.
“I’ve spoken with young people across our country who feel weighed down by tremendous pressure that is affecting their mental health and well-being,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said in a statement. “For many of them, one important source of such stress is the college admissions process which they describe as being less about growth and exploration and more about checking boxes and fitting into a narrow definition of success.”
Seniors say the college application process harms their mental health in multiple ways. For one, it makes them feel as if they have to be perfect.
“You need to have a really good SAT score, you need to have really good grades, and you need to be excellent in pretty much every field that you’re in,” Burbank High School senior Matthew Baker said. “So that’s something that I always think about. I’m like, ‘Am I good enough to be attending these schools?’” Even Baker, who is arguably turning in a promising application, said the college expectations of parents and classmates are daunting, and the stress imposed at school by well-meaning adults can be overwhelming.
“It’s sort of similar to social media in a way,” Baker said. “A problem that a lot of teens have is, we start comparing. A lot of times I compare myself to other students in my grade who are also very, very talented and excellent. Sometimes [I think] they’re way, way more qualified than I might be. That can be really mentally taxing.”
The adults in students' lives can help them immeasurably by supporting growth and exploration over checking boxes toward a narrow definition of success! This belief and supporting strategies are the most essential, fundamental value set in my work coaching, advising, and guiding students through high school and toward college and a life beyond. Despite all the cultural resistance, this approach works! It helps students gain confidence in their voice, aptitudes and interests. In turn, the college choice becomes less fraught with anxiety. Self-worth and identity aren't waiting to be validated by an admission reader responding to unknown and uncontrollable institutional priorities. Along the way, students also become much more compelling applicants. Human beings with stories to tell, self-knowledge, quirky expertise, hobbies that are rewarding even if they aren't internationally awarded, and humble self-assuredness are always more interesting than perfectionist box-checkers... And: do you want to go to a college that rewards perfectionist box-checkers afraid to try new things, because they might fail, or just not be the very best? As a beloved former admission dean said to me a few years ago, "My favorite question is, 'What do you do for fun?' and some of these kids can't answer it anymore! I want kids who have an answer!" Let's encourage our adolescents to be themselves. The right college will meet them where they are if they are allowed to flourish and tell their true story. It's almost magical to watch when it's allowed to happen.
Read more here to find what you actually need in a college, and what matters in education, "success" as defined authentically, and a happy life.
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