Prioritize Early and Often to Reduce College Admissions Stress

“You can’t help but slip into the system of competitive insanity related to college admissions to achieve social normalcy. You learn that it is OK and necessary to have great apprehension regarding your grades. You focus on getting straight As. You go to bed at 1 a.m. every night, only to wake up a few hours later (earlier if you have morning practice for your sport) in an effort to get your excessive amount of homework finished each night. But at least you have the weekends to relax and pursue your own interests, right? No, there’s another surfeit of homework waiting for you on Friday night, plus SAT practice. Of course, we’re expected to maintain a social life and spend adequate time with our families as well.”

– Carolyn Walworth, class of 2016 at Palo Alto High School

In the students we work with, we see the effects of college admissions stress every day. There’s often insane pressure to excel at subjects you find utterly boring, and keep up with a huge load of AP and honors homework, extracurricular activities, and sports. These can wear students down and cause myriad issues of health and well-being, and are unproductive at best.

Much of this stress is driven by parents who want to give their child the best of everything and believe that admission into a top university is the key to success. But the lessons students learn in the process can be harmful, not just to their college plans, but to their life.

So prioritize early, and prioritize often, to reduce college admissions stress for both your teen and you. When your child enters high school, ask yourself what is honestly your top priority for them. And teach them how to prioritize and develop resistance to peer pressure themselves.

A Few Important Facts

  • As Frank Bruni points out in his book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” people overestimate the value of attending an “elite” college. Of course, the networking value of an elite college education matters in life. But not at the expense of one’s mental health or well-being, and not nearly as much as we think. Equally, one can be immensely successful without attending an elite school by developing skills of character, resilience, and prioritization.
  • College admissions officials do not value raw numbers of accomplishments, but rather a clear focus. So encouraging one’s teen to focus on a few things they love, will pay off. Not just in terms of their health but in terms of college admissions. As Wesleyan University President Michael Roth said, “What we want is to have students who want to come and work hard because they can leverage their experience at the university and do something after they leave.”

Useful Resources to Help Ease College Admissions Stress

  • Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce has developed a set of extremely useful rankings, which focus on a university’s contribution to your child’s employment and earnings potential, rather than its prestige. Sites like LifeLaunchr factor this data into their university match algorithms, so use these tools to pick universities that may be great educational opportunities and also less challenging to gain admission into.
  • Pick courses thoughtfully. This may be the most important thing you can do in high school. Taking 7-10 AP courses during high school is just too much for most students. That doesn’t mean they’re not smart enough. The fast pace and intense homework load of an AP course make learning difficult and joyless for many students. So be strategic about your (or your child’s) course choices in high school.
  • Be selective about extracurriculars and sports. Unless you’re a gifted athlete or get tremendous benefit from the team’s social structure, think hard before joining a team that travels statewide to play. You’ll spend hours on practices and trips that don’t help with stress, college admissions, or physical or mental health. Speak to a coach or counselor early about whether your teen has a good chance of winning an athletic scholarship or playing for a Division I or II school. If not, play sports you like and manage your time commitment. Similarly with extracurriculars: focus on a few activities you genuinely enjoy. Building a track record and showing leadership is far more important for college admissions than having twelve extracurriculars on your list.

A 2011 report by the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice and the Education Conservancy described the college admissions system as “increasingly competitive (and) inwardly focused,” and said that it “has evolved to advance individual interests of colleges while falling short of serving the ideals traditionally associated with higher education.” For millions of students and parents, this has translated into years of stress and anxiety. Prioritizing relentlessly can help build a plan that lower stress levels for both of you and improve outcomes.

This article is part two of a five-part series. Part three is at this link.

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