College Applications Increase Stress
Currently a freshman in high school, one inquisitive web user wants to know what his chances are of gaining admission to Harvard College’s class of 2018. He attends what he describes as a top private school where he is enrolled in the most rigorous courses offered to freshmen. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, he is also active in his local community—volunteering at a local library and staying involved with his church’s youth group.
To get information on his chances four years down the road, he turns to the popular college admissions website College Confidential with a “chance me” post.
While this is just one ambitious high school student, adults involved in the college admissions process report that as applying to highly selective universities becomes increasingly competitive, students have become more and more stressed. This pressure has not only detracted from students’ high school experiences but has also impacted the broader educational environment even at young ages.
While many ambitious students certainly put pressure on themselves to gain admittance to highly selective universities, experts report that the current environment deserves much of the blame.
In an experience that most Harvard students know all too well, high school students who seek to attend elite universities overburden themselves in the hopes of becoming more compelling college applicants. Under pressure, these students often take on the hardest classes and overextend themselves in a variety of extracurricular activities.
“Students feel a lot of pressure in high school to take every [Advanced Placement] course that’s offered,” said Michael S. McPherson, a former president of Macalester College. “They feel a lot of pressure to never take a course where they risk getting less than an A. Those are educationally undesirable things.”
This high school experience often makes students feel as if they have to participate in activities that they are not legitimately interested in, according to independent Conn. college counselor Gay S. Pepper.
“The biggest fallacy is that the kids think they have to be everything to everybody. You only have to be good at what you like. They feel that if they let up someone else will get ahead of them in line,” she said.
Harvard College Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said that the increasingly stressful admissions process is representative of a broader shift towards a more competitive educational environment at younger ages.
“Initially, people tied [the problem] to college admissions and then they realized that it’s just a step along the way,” Fitzsimmons said. He expressed concern over the growing sentiment that young children have to get into the right preschool in order to succeed in life. This belief, he said, continues to drive behavior even after college when students are applying to graduate schools and finding employment.
Richard J. Weissbourd, author of the book “The Parents We Mean to Be,” echoed Fitzsimmons’ sentiments that the increasingly competitive educational environment extends beyond high school.
According to Weissbourd, children might sense that their parents want them to attend top-tier institutions even when they never say this explicitly. Parents often inadvertently create a high-pressure environment while trying to help their children.
“If my neighbors are getting their kids an SAT tutor, I feel like I’m cheating my kids if I don’t,” said Weissbourd, who is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School.
College counselors say that in many families, pressure to attend a top institution begins at an early age.