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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.
“There are parents who make it their life mission to get their kid into an Ivy League school. By the time they get to high school, there’s no time for any kind of life,” said Amy Sack, a clinical psychologist who serves as president of admissions consulting firm Admissions: Accomplished.
She said that many parents seek her services as early as seventh grade, but that she does not take on students that early.
While counselors, education experts, and admissions officials alike acknowledge the problem, there is no agreement on potential solutions.
Suggestions have ranged from selective schools expanding their enrollments to colleges simplifying their applications and better explaining their admissions processes. By encouraging students to take a gap year to recuperate, the Harvard admissions office also took part in the debate in a paper entitled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation.”
Earlier this year, McPherson and Sandy Baum—a professor emeritus at Skidmore College who works as an analyst for the College Board—published a piece online advocating increased enrollment at highly selective colleges. While acknowledging that such an aim would be difficult to achieve, they said that a coordinated move to increase class size could alleviate stress among applicants.
Still, counselors suggest simpler solutions that they believe could greatly ease stress without a complete overhaul.
Michael Goran, director and educational consultant at California college counseling firm IvySelect, suggested that colleges trim down the number of supplemental essays that applicants must complete.
“Do schools really need three supplemental essays?” he asked. “Perhaps limiting it to one supplemental essay would make life a tad easier.”
Goran suggested that colleges provide students with clear information about how their admissions processes are conducted.
Sack said that she believed that universities need to stop encouraging unqualified students from applying. One student who scored below 500 on all three sections of the SAT received a letter from Columbia University in New York encouraging him to apply, Sack said.
“They’re never going to take a student with those numbers,” she said. “His parents called me and said they didn’t realize he was an Ivy League candidate. They didn’t know anything.”
Fitzsimmons’ support of the gap year focuses more on dealing with stress than preventing it. He argues that taking a gap year, or taking time off more broadly, provides some students with a necessary break.
He said that it’s an opportunity to have a “reality check to see if you’re using your life in a way you believe in.”
Despite all of the problems caused by stress, Fitzsimmons still insists that the increased pressure is a byproduct of increased access to a tertiary education.
“The democratization of higher education really meant that more and more people wanted to go to college,” he said.
—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be contacted at email@example.com.
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