"We think this generation is wonderful in every way, but we worry that unless something changes, we're going to lose a lot of them." This comment by Dean William R. Fitzsimmons was the quote of the day in the New York Times on Dec. 7. It was part of a front page article about the stress of college admissions that placed significant emphasis on a paper the Harvard Admissions Office published on their web site in conjunction with the director of the Bureau of Study Counsel. Dramatically, it warned prospective high school applicants that it is now either "time out or burn out for the next generation."
Harvard, trendsetter that it is, is hoping to become the leader in a burgeoning push to make the college application process less competitive. Sounds great. The only problem is that Harvard is largely responsible for making the application so stressful in the first place. If Harvard doesn't want high school students who are burned out from singing soprano for the school play, playing point guard for the basketball team, serving food at the local soup kitchen and taking nine Advanced Placement classes, they don't need to talk about the problem. All they have to do is stop admitting them.
The paper, labeled "DRAFT" in the web page title, describes a national problem: high school students who don't get enough sleep, do activities they don't necessarily like because of overbearing parents and arrive at college too tired to enjoy the experience. The solution? "Bring summer back," declares the paper wistfully. It suggests that "an old-fashioned summer job" can be more valuable than high-pressure academic summer programs and pre-planned group travelling. Does that mean Harvard will stop accepting students who spent their summers doing scientific research in laboratories in preparation for their Westinghouses? Will Bronfman Youth Fellowship winners be turned back from Johnston Gate? I don't think so.
The paper also bemoans the pre-packaging of many admission applications. It recounts horror stories of parents who take sabbaticals from work in order to manage their daughter's college applications; SAT tutors that cost hundreds of dollars and toddlers that have structured playtime. Yet Harvard itself could easily alleviate some of the pressure to create the perfect applicant by making SAT/ACT scores optional. Colleges that have already adopted this policy have found no gap in first year of grades of those admitted with SAT's and those without, despite the fact that the SAT scores of the former group were significantly higher. Optional SAT's would be a concrete step towards easing high school burnout. And it would show that Harvard can actually practice what it preaches.
The paper also tries to take some credit for easing stress by citing the fact that many students here, 20 percent, take time off during college. The paper implies that this is an example of the flexibility of Harvard's administrative process. In fact, it is a result of Harvard's lack of flexibility. Taking time off is more prevalent at Harvard than on other campuses because of the difficulty of receiving academic credit for studying abroad. Any student who wishes to take time away from Harvard and still graduate with her classmates must be advanced standing (a decision that must be made halfway through the first year) or be within a concentration that has a specifically non-U.S. focus. Additionally, there are numerous administrative technicalities surrounding the study-abroad process that require students to start planning early and intensively. In short, Harvard's approach to studying abroad induces stress. Therefore many students prefer to take the less attractive but much less stressful option of simply leaving school for a year.
Anyway, am I the only one who finds it a bit silly that the Bureau of Study Counsel is blaming college student burnout on their experience in high school? Isn't it more likely that college burnout is due to stress during college, not before it? After all, Harvard concentration advising programs consistently receive abysmal reviews in the senior survey. First-year advising dominated by the proctor system is notoriously weak. And the inadequacy of University Health Services has been scrutinized by two of the campus's major student magazines in the past two weeks.
Harvard provides inadequate support systems for its students. Instead of taking responsibility, it is passing the buck onto stress-out parents, whose only flaw is buying into a system of college admissions that Harvard is largely responsible for creating.
Christina S.N. Lewis '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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