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Say “No” to an Admission Offer from a Highly Selective College?

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Sometimes I cringe when I re-read some of my older Blog posts. And sometimes I think I was spot on.

Early April is here – and with it, I’m moving beyond the March Madness of basketball (that final game where the underdog team Villanova beat UNC at the buzzer was well worth staying up late for) – and again observing the annual “madness” that the college acceptance season has become.

I wrote a Blog post in April, 2015 expressing my thoughts on what really matters when making a college choice.

Here is what I said then  – I think it rings as true today as it did a year ago ———>

 

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

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

But – can I be honest here?

I think it really DOES matter where a student goes to college.

But probably not for the reasons you think.

1st – Attending a college with a well-known brand name DOES open future doors.

I agree 150% that fit matters far more than brand name. Yet brand name can help, especially in the post-college years – – let’s not kid ourselves.

When I applied for internships and jobs, every 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/sister/niece/cousin) went to Smith. You must be smart.”

The name of my college opened doors – got me interviews, introduced me to well-connected alums.

Here’s the key though: 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 may ease his path to jobs and graduate schools. But he has to do the work once he gets there.

2nd – Going to a college that offers a diverse and intellectually stimulating community in which to live DOES matter.

Much of the learning in college comes from outside the classroom – which is why it is 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 usually can and do offer more financial aid, a student may find a truly diverse student community, in terms of background, beliefs, ethnicity, race and social class in a more selective school.

3rd –  and most important to me  – Where a student goes to college DOES matter to that student’s Mental Health.

Parents and their teens must discuss the topic of college student mental health – before the student sets foot on campus next fall.

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 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 recent studies, report feeling anxious, depressed and/or stressed.

The University of Pennsylvania, seeking its own answers after a series of student suicides,  wants to change its own campus culture of  self-described “destructive perfectionism” – – a culture sadly familiar to many at similar top colleges where 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.

So step back a minute.

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

And yes, a top college often offers the most intellectually intriguing and diverse community in which to study and make forever friends.

But perhaps – 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 –

Perhaps your student should do the unexpected –  and  consider saying “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 themselves must take the first step to lessen the pressure to be perfect in order to be accepted.
  • Parents should dial down their own expectations.
  • Students should put their own mental health first (and second, and third) – and start rethinking about college (and high school) as 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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“Going for the ‘Wow” Factor in College Admissions – From 2001 To 2015

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I often think I am a prescient person. Then sometimes I find proof.

While cleaning a long-forgotten shelf this week, I came across an old folder containing copies of my early published essays.  In my lawyering days I wrote occasional freelance essays, satirical or poignant, or both, on subjects that captured my attention as a parent and was thrilled when I saw them in print.

On May 8, 2001 – 14 years ago!! – if you were reading the Washington Post, you would have seen my article on page C4:

 

Going for the ‘Wow’ Factor”

by Nancy L. Wolf – May 8, 2001

“Recently the University of California proposed to eliminate the SAT as a requirement for admission to college. I have another bold proposal to add to the debate on the college admission process: Start mandatory college counseling in the sixth grade.

What I have learned as the parent of a high school junior is that we have waited far too long to prepare our child for the rigors of the college admission process.

We thought we were ahead of the game. We knew she needed high SAT scores, excellent grades, evidence of as many advanced placement or honors-level courses as she could squeeze into a semester, and leadership in extracurricular activities. But apparently that is no longer sufficient. As the parents of juniors were informed at a recent college night at our daughter’s school, our children must also possess some great distinction, a unique talent or accomplishment to offer to their prospective college.

It is, of course, a little late, to develop a “wow” factor when your daughter is already a high school junior.

On the way home from college night, our daughter berated us for not thinking ahead. If only we had signed her up for advanced pottery classes when she was six or taught her how to fly fish when she was eight, she might have been en route to a national ranking or regional award in the talent of her choice. How could we have been so unenlightened as parents not to know to plan ahead for the college admission process.

Take a look at the Web sites of various selective colleges. Sure, they boast of the high SAT scores and grade point averages of their recently admitted classes. But they point with even more pride to the distinctive, unusual and frankly, sometimes odd accomplishments of next fall’s incoming class. Unfortunately our daughter is unable to contribute to this new diversity.

She is not a tiger trainer, nor a commercial fisherman, nor a champion cricket player. She does not milk cows at dawn on our family farm in Nebraska, or host her own cable television show, or regularly swim across the English Channel. She has not been a master junior golfer, has never been awarded a patent for her own invention and did not win a national Hula-Hoop championship. She is, simply put, a terrific kid. How devastating to find out after all these years that this is just not going to be good enough.

One of the speakers at college night was an admission officer at a university proud of its highly selective admissions standards. He shared with us the profile of a recent applicant – a young woman, first in her family to go to college, a nationally ranked pianist, the winner of numerous math awards, the captain of the tennis team, the highest of scores and grades, who had tutored young children in Chinese.

The other parents in the audience at college night were awed at her accomplishments. I could only wonder – when did she have time to floss?

With all that she packed into her day, so busy was she fashioning her pre-college resume, that she barely had time to say hello to her parents, much less to spend an hour of downtime watching MTV. I suppose that when she gets into that highly selective college of her choice, she can learn to floss there.

Yet, the admissions officer was dismissive of her achievements. He told us that she was too “well-rounded”. What his university was looking for was that special something, that oomph that no one else had. That “wow” factor that only admission officers know when they see it.

The stress on our high schoolers is palpable.

These kids worry that they must begin studying analogies for the verbal part of the SAT I well before they even know what an analogy is.  Now added to the anxiety about grades, scores and accelerated classes, they must also devote hours, beginning at a very young age, to development of their “wow” factor. That one singular talent that will help an applicant stand out from the highly qualified crowd.

The speaker at college night was dismissive as well of the accomplishments of another applicant whose admission folder he shared with us, someone he said was a “borderline” candidate, despite his extremely high SAT scores, grades and records of challenging classes. This young man, the admission officer, told us had been the class president, editor of the newspaper and captain of a varsity team. But, he said, his university gets many of these kinds of applicants – too much leadership! – these days. We parents all slumped in our chairs, racking our brains at this late date for that elusive “wow” factor.

Now I see that we have played this all wrong. As parents,  we could have helped give our daughter the “wow” factor she so desperately needs. But unfortunately, my husband is not a senator and I am not a Supreme Court justice. There are no science buildings at any of the colleges we plan to visit that have been endowed by any of our blood relatives. We have nothing to offer our daughter in the way of distinctiveness. We, too, are normal.

So I propose that mandatory pre-college counseling begin in the sixth grade. No wait, perhaps that is too late; first grade would be better. A sign-up sheet can be passed around in every school with “wow” factors to choose from. Each first grader will meet with the college counselor to decide on what “wow” factor will be his or her special area of expertise. Elementary and middle schools would hire special tutors for afternoon “wow” factor classes.

By the time each child gets into high school, that will be one less thing to stress about. Every kid will have his or her own “wow” factor.

But wait, won’t that make it less distinctive if every child has one? There, that will be our daughter’s “wow” factor – she will be the “normal” one! No one has a “normal” for a “wow” factor these days – she’s in!”

 

(post script from May 14, 2015)

Our daughter graduated in 2006 from an amazing liberal arts college which somehow overlooked her lack of a single “wow” factor, and instead had the wisdom to recognize that having a terrific, well-rounded, smart and thoughtful young woman on their campus would be an excellent fit for both of them. Would that be the outcome in 2015? Perhaps not, the college admission process has gotten even more frantic since 2001.  The pressure on teens and college kids to be distinctive, to excel, to be perfect has reached epic proportions. How can we  – as parents – push the pendulum back to the not so far off good ol’ days when being a terrific, well-rounded kid was actually a sought after quality? For the sake of our kids’ mental health, we must take steps to do this.)

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

09_spring-lawn_campus-center

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.

 

 

 

 

 

14 Comments

March 31, 2015 · 4:19 pm

“A” is for Application, “B” is for Biome, “C” is for College…

taiga_NLW

 

“Really, you’ve never heard of the ‘Taiga Biome’? It’s a subartic forest, the largest one on the earth.” Jasmine told me.

“Sorry, news to me. Maybe the word Biome didn’t exist when I was in high school?” I replied hopefully.

Jasmine laughed, then whipped the laptop into google mode in under 10 seconds and told me that the term “Biome” was first used in 1916.

Since I did graduate from high school well after 1916, I laughed in return, but tried to defend myself.

“O.K., let me explain. They didn’t even have environmental science back when I was in high school. The first Earth Day was when I was a senior.”

Jasmine looked at me with understandable bemusement.

Here we were:

Me:  a 62-year-old Caucasian woman, clearly out of touch, at least when it came to biological habitats, who has lived for over 30 years in a close-in, upscale DC suburb.

She: a 17-year-old African-American woman, a senior in high school, who lived in a part of lower-income Washington DC beyond my typical paths.

I sat down next to Jasmine last night in a conference room in a DC office building to start a conversation with her about her college applications. At first she claimed she was too busy to talk, she was doing research for her senior project, the “Taiga Biome”.

Like college bound 17 year olds everywhere, she preferred doing just about anything other than focusing on her college applications.

This fall I started volunteering with a non-profit group in DC that helps 1st generation and/or low-income teens get into and stay in college. The group, let’s call it “CAP” – College Access Program – starts with kids nominated by their DC public schools and pairs them up with academic mentors through high school to make sure they stay on the college track. In junior year, CAP ramps it up, adds in college visits, seminars, test prep, scholarship info – and here is where I came in – and brings in college advisors.

I was honored when CAP asked me to be a college advisor, but anxious.  How could I connect with these kids?

The high school kids I had college counseled in the past had parents a lot like me – highly educated, well read, totally versed in the college planning culture. Their kids had the ins and outs of the college process embedded in their DNA,  from AP to IB, from test prep to individual tutoring, from early decision to early application to single choice early application and back again. They knew the lingo, they knew what was expected of them. I was one of these parents not so long ago. And my kids were those kids.

Jasmine and most of her CAPs classmates didn’t grow up with the for-sure vision of college in their future. This was newer terrain for them, they were feeling their way. They knew I was there to help them. But as uncertain as I was of what I could do for them, they were wary of me, too. Why should they confide in me? I had to find some common ground.

So I tried to make a connection with Jasmine by talking to her about her school work. The Taiga Biome. Well, that was a flop.

Better to try, I thought, to just dive into a subject I did know well. How to write a college application essay that would capture her heart and mind in under 650 words.

The best part of the college planning process for me had always been helping 17 year olds with their essays. Let me clarify, I did not and do not “write” these essays. The kids write every word. Before the writing starts, we brainstorm. Call it weird but I find it fun to help a high school senior come up with five or six paragraphs, a story, a vignette that will show (show, not tell) a very busy college admission staffer who she is and what she will contribute to the campus. It is a story about you, I tell these kids.

I tried again.

“Jasmine, can we talk for a few minutes about your college applications. I know you have a list of schools, but where are you on your college essays, on your personal statement?”

Jasmine looked down, hoping perhaps that the answer to my question might spring from the photo of the trees of the Taiga Biome on the laptop screen.

“No”, she said very quietly.

“That’s fine, no problem. I can help you with that. Do you have any ideas of what you want to write about?”

“No”, even quieter this time.

“Tell me about what you did last summer, tell me what you like to do when you are not in school, tell me what makes you happy – or sad.”

We chatted for a bit, Jasmine still looking down at the laptop, looking anywhere but at me. But at least we were talking. She told me she was on her high school’s track team.

“That’s good. I have a nephew who’s on the cross-country team at his high school. Similar sports?”

“Cross country is longer; they have hills.  I run shorter distances on a track, it’s flat.”

I was impressed, since I think that going down stairs to our basement to do the laundry should count as a valid form of exercise.  I asked Jasmine, “What do you like about running?”

Jasmine, for the first time since we started to talk, looked up and turned her face towards mine.

“I find it soothing.”

I paused. “Jasmine, I’m not your therapist. You don’t have to tell me why you find it soothing – but I think a college admission person would be interested to know why you find running to be soothing for you. What is going on in your life that makes you want to run, to be soothed, do you think you could write about that?”

” I like music, I find that soothing too.” she said in a more confident voice.

And that was that. Well, maybe not so fast. Jasmine hasn’t written her essay yet.  But she had her topic, her way into herself.

Yes, I thought, all 17 year olds are alike. The CAPs kids are just like every other teen, no matter their parents’ income level. While they may be comfortable texting every single thought they have to their friends, to sharing their opinions with the world on social media, they are inherently private. Few 17 year olds want to dig deep, to self-reflect, to figure out what makes them “tick” – and then write about in a personal essay. And even fewer want to share that with a complete stranger called a “college advisor.”  I knew that going in but didn’t really appreciate that until Jasmine and I started to talk.

I learned what the Taiga Biome is. And Jasmine is learning how to write about herself. I call that a connection.

 

 

 

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