Let’s Stop The Real “March Madness”: the Stress of College Admission Season


I disagree with part of what New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, said  – and take issue with what he didn’t say – in his recent column about the madness of this College Admission season.

Yes, it is a ridiculous and harmful obsession that some parents have, shared at times by their teens, with getting accepted to an elite, highly-selective college.

And yes, “getting in” can become the narrowest of goals in this March Madness college admission season.

But – can I be honest here?

I think it really DOES matter where you go to college.

But probably not for the reasons you think.

First – the name brand cachet does opens doors.

When I applied for internships during and for jobs after college, every single interviewer I met labeled me (rightly or wrongly) as smart based upon the school from which I had graduated.

“You went to Smith? My (daughter/wife/niece/cousin) went to Smith. You must be smart.”

(note that the interviewer in my day was always a man. always)

The name of my college opened doors – got me interviews, introduced me to well-connected alums. But it was up to me to achieve once I got in that door.

So if your teen pushes for a brand name school, he understands its name will always be on his resume. He’s right; that name alone will ease his path to jobs and graduate schools.

Second – going to a selective college offers a diverse and intellectually stimulating community in which to live.

Much of the learning in college comes from outside the classroom – which is why it is so important to attend a college where you will be surrounded by people you will learn from.

And, assuming a student, is open to new ideas, because this is really what college is about, isn’t it? –  she will not learn as much from people who look like her, think like her and grew up near her than she would from people who are dissimilar.

Diversity does matter – because highly-selective schools can afford (although not all do) to offer more financial aid, a student is more likely to find a truly diverse student community, in terms of background, beliefs, ethnicity, race and social class in a more selective school.

Third –  and most important, IMHO, where you go to college matters to a student’s mental health.

Bruni does not discuss this but parents and students must.

The absurd stress of the college admission process is but a harbinger of things to come. If a student gets accepted to the dream elite school of her choice, the prize is an entrance ticket into an even more highly stressful academic environment.

Highly-selective schools function as pressure cookers, packed with intensely focused kids driven to succeed and achieve, to get that A, to find the best internship, to land a prestigious job after graduation or get into a top medical school.

And the impact of all of that stress?

An increasingly deleterious impact on the mental health of college students. More students than ever, according to a recent UCLA study, report feeling anxious, depressed and/or stressed.

The University of Pennsylvania, seeking its own answers after a series of student suicides, acknowledges but wants to change its own campus culture of “destructive perfectionism” – – a culture sadly familiar to many at top colleges where similarly driven students put immense pressure on themselves to achieve and then think they have failed themselves (and perhaps their parents) if they don’t meet their often overly-ambitious goals.

Don’t the most selective of colleges bear much of the responsibility for the creation of this pressure cooker culture since it is the colleges themselves that have ratcheted up, with each passing year, this March Madness of the college admission season?

So step back a minute.

If accepted to a highly selective school yes, it’s true that its’ name brand will be a helpful lifetime credential and connection.

And yes, an elite top college may provide the most diverse community in which to live.

But perhaps – even if your student gets accepted by the most tippy-top, elite of schools, because of his perfect grades, mega test scores, impossibly impressive list of awards, achievements and leadership positions, even if your son or daughter is the kind of student who could barely find time to floss in high school, given how busy he or she was keeping up the most competitive of applicant resumes –

Perhaps your student should do the unexpected –  and say “no, thank you” to that most elite of colleges?

What if your student instead considered instead a college with a culture that is not one of  “destructive perfectionism” – but instead one that will support as well as challenge a student.

Here’s the plan:

  • Colleges must take the first step to lessen the pressure to be perfect in order to be accepted.
  • Parents must dial down their expectations.
  • Our students must get the message that colleges (and high schools) are places in which to enjoy learning, to thrive in instead of being driven into a frenzy of unrealistic achievement goals.

Then the only March Madness will be the games we watch on T.V.

Let’s all bet on that.







March 31, 2015 · 4:19 pm

14 responses to “Let’s Stop The Real “March Madness”: the Stress of College Admission Season

  1. Coffeelori

    Nancy I very much enjoy reading your articles. This one is no exception. I would like to add a quote that I have plagiarized from somewhere, don’t remember where, could be something I read, heard in a lecture, or was said to me by one of my wide, non-U. of P. friends: “It is not as important to go to the best school, as it is to go to the right school”. This statement is a spin on your comments in your article that questions:

    What if your student instead considered instead a college with a culture that is not one of “destructive perfectionism” – but instead one that will support as well as challenge a student. Your statement is so true that:

    Our students must get the message that colleges (and high schools) are places in which to enjoy learning, to thrive in instead of being driven into a frenzy of unrealistic achievement goals.

    I also would like to point out that a school that is so challenging academically to the student will inhibit the possibility of graduating a well rounded, socially secure individual, who has had the opportunity to make lifelong friends and connections that could help tremendously in the next big life step that college supposedly prepares one for….wait for it…..the “CAREER”! Thanks and keep writing, Lori Palmer


  2. I agree with you Nancy. The college experience should be a mix of fun and experience not dread and anxiety. I would like to add that some 18 year olds aren’t really mature enough for college. It can be devastating to the student to find that he/she cannot manage their time on their own and flunk out or are asked to leave.


  3. Such great points. I would also add that there are next tier schools that can be just as competitive about admissions and just as expensive and I’m not sure the stress of getting in and paying is really worth it. I’m thinking of my own school, which I LOVED (WashU in St. Louis) but did it open doors for me? Not really. Would I have had the same exact job prospects at The University of Illinois for SO MUCH LESS MONEY? For sure. But . . . I also met Bryan there and so many amazing friends. My kids are far away from this point, but more and more the cost does not seem worth it. (Not to mention I’m not crazy about a lot of the anti-Israel anti-Jewish sentiment that’s tolerated at so many schools.) My husband is convinced that the online options will come into play more and either force prices down or at least open people’s eyes to there being more than one to take the post-high school route.

    I am so rambling. Sorry.


    • Nina, I totally agree with you re next tier schools being just as competitive but I would put Wash U. in the top tier, at least in terms of selectivity today. I hope that before your kids get to be pre-college age, this kind of admission madness has run its course.



  4. Lynn Borer

    My son attended Univ of Penn. which turned out to be a great fit…I think that some children and their parents stress way too much about which college to attend…What matters most is to choose a college that is a good fit…Life is filled with disappointments and how that is handled is what builds character…And as the college counselor at his high school pointed out, most kids get into a college and have a great experience…


  5. Fifty Jewels

    All learning should be energizing, exciting and fun. Not filled with anxiety and dread. Thank you for calling out what has become a ridiculous ritual in this country that serves the good of no one. We can do better.


  6. There is such pressure now to get into certain colleges and I only hope the education that students receive lives up to the expectations. Also, are elite colleges more likely to give a better education than other types, and isn’t what is ‘good’ education somewhat of a personal take? So much to think about here.


  7. momof3

    It wasn’t until my oldest child applied to colleges last year did I realize just how stressful it would be. Everyone warns about Junior year of HS being so difficult, tackling multiple AP classes, studying and prepping for SAT’s, and visiting schools. Junior year was a “walk in the park” in comparison to her senior year. She was so filled with anxiety and ulltiimately disappointment during the college application and acceptance round. She did not have a “first” choice which made this even more difficult, believe it or not. We thought she would end up at one of the elite in-state schools that we would be lucky to have only an in-state tuition to fork out. Things did not work out that way for her. She was devastated to learn that she was wait-listed at both of these schools and since she did not apply to any other in-state school our last option was an out of state tuition bill. I had always told her that she would end up where she needed to be and that is exactly what happened. She is not at “the” elite school however she is in a VERY competitive program at her out of state school and is among the top 10 percent. I am thrilled for her!


  8. Trishas Gmail

    That’s an interesting way to think about fancy schools and the push to get into them. For supportiveness of students, what’s your own ranking of the most competitive 64 or 32 schools, and why? From that perspective, what do you think about junior year abroad? About a gap year?


    • Supportiveness is measured, IMHO, in small part by the # of mental health counselors a college or university has on staff (ratio per student), how accessible counseling is, whether it is short-term only, etc. – but the larger part is the campus culture – is it cut-throat competitive or is there peer support and an appreciation of wellness as well as academic success? I think junior year abroad would give a student a break from a stressful campus, in most cases. And a gap year, that depends too. If the student takes a gap year and stabilizes his/her own pre-existing mental health issues, or for a break from K-12 stress, then a gap year is useful.



  9. I can’t imagine the amount of stress that this would put on teenagers and also their parents. We all want our kids to be successful, but you show here that what may seem successful can also do more harm than good. I think I would vote for the smaller school, healthier student myself.


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