Putting the Brakes on College Admission Pressure: recent panel discussion in Newton

I recently attended a panel discussion held in Newton MA and reported in the Boston Globe (click for article).

The event was billed as a discussion of the book "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be" by New York Times author Frank Bruni. The book's subititle "An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania" sums up its premise: stop chasing US News Rankings, take a breath, you can succeed no matter where you go to college. I'll be writing about the book in an upcoming blog.

The Newton panelists included high school guidance counselors, a college consultant and the dean of admissions at Northeastern University. Much of the evening was a spirited Q&A from concerned parents, voicing issues such as these:

  • The college application process has gotten out of hand

  • There is a high stakes race to push children to the top of their class and into an elite college

  • College has become "industrialized"

  • Why can't our kids just be themselves? It worked for us when we were in school, and we turned out okay...

  • The problem is with "helicoptering" and "snowplowing" parents whose well-intentioned efforts to help their kids end up backfiring by creating fragile young adults who lack resiliency and the ability to cope with failure.

  • Does hiring tutors, test prep specialists and consultants empower and support a student, or impede their ability to figure things out on their own?

  • But can kids really afford to try and fail in high school and still get into a good college?

Part of the answer to controlling the pressure is to redefine our approach to the college search process, focusing more on which schools fit each student -- academically, socially and financially -- and less on where a school is ranked by US News. If Harvard or Stanford are the universities that fit a student best, great, but don't set your sights there just because you want the car decal (and with acceptance rates at 5%, have a plan B). While we all love Top 10 lists, they can't capture the many personal dimensions that impact a college experience. It takes self-assessment and research to identify where a student will thrive.

I thought another interesting theme was sounded not during the event, but in the comments section of the Globe article that followed. Several people suggested the idea of a Gap Year to help students recharge their minds while gaining useful experience outside the classroom. "There isn't a single high school student who wouldn't benefit from taking a break and maturing some and learning a bit about the world. College will be there." A year of alternative experience can be healthy on many levels. If you're going to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for college, it makes sense to ensure that your child is ready to take full advantage of the opportunity.

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