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College Admissions Craze: Are We Making Our Kids Sick?

Do we do a disservice to our children's sense of self-reliance and authenticity by being too vigorously involved in the college application process?
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Clinical psychologist and parenting expert Wendy Mogel is fond of recalling an anecdote that sums up parental obsession with college admissions. One day her friend, a college placement counselor, got a call from a father who had promptly returned her phone call. In the background, she heard an odd noise.

"What's that noise?" she asked.

"Oh, it's nothing," the dad replied. "I can talk. I'm just doing a colonoscopy."

Wisely, the college placement counselor told the father that they'd table their conversation until after the procedure.

This might be extreme, but it underscores the extent to which parents have become overly involved in the college admissions process and its gatekeepers, in many cases to the detriment of their kids. Stories abound about parents so zealously involved that they've even written their kids' personal essays and mistakenly signed their own names on the application. Gone, in any case, are the halcyon dates when teens could get into a great college with simply a solid GPA and SAT scores and limited parental supervision.

Fear of competing (or not) in an increasingly globalized job market has driven parents to micro-manage their kids with the gusto of hedge fund managers negotiating investment portfolios. It doesn't help that beyond great transcripts and SAT scores, teenagers now need their own personal portfolios that include years of community service, extracurricular activities, and college prep courses that start, as some joke, in pressure-cooker pre-schools. (Mogel contends that kindergarten is now "boot camp for the second grade standardized tests.")

They also need to apply to not one or two colleges but sometimes more than ten. Although the Common Application is used by more than 400 schools, many also require additional personal essays designed to convey formative intellectual experiences.

Top schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University have seen a decline in applicants this year because, as one observer noted, students recognize they face "impossible" odds of landing a spot, Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported.

No wonder parents and students alike are locked in the vice-grip of anxiety. Nearly ever aspect of a child's persona needs to match up to the admissions grid and culture of a chosen college. So does the size of one's wallet. But is all this necessary or nefarious? Do we do a disservice to our children's sense of self-reliance and authenticity by being too vigorously involved in this process?

According to Mogel this pathology, if one can call it that, is part of the dark side of parental devotion. In an article of the same name, Mogel describes two new breeds of teenagers that have emerged in today's hyper-tutored, over-parented academic culture. Writes Mogel: "College deans have a name for some of the incoming students: 'teacups' and 'crispies.' Teacups are so fragile that they are easily broken by the knocks of college life. Crispies are so burned out that they are too brittle to enjoy anything. An increasing number are actually returning home after first semester, unable to cope."

Mogel goes on to cite a Harvard report that describes a disturbing rise in stress-related disorders related, from depression and substance abuse to self-injury. In "Less Stress, More Success -- A New Approach to College Admissions and Beyond," Marilee Jones, the Dean of Admissions at MIT, actually advocates re-evaluating the entire admissions process in light of "the increased anxiety of this young Millennial generation." Apropos, Jones writes: "I have come to believe that in our own way, we are making them sick."

If we're making our kids sick with an admissions process that should be re-evaluated, it stands to reason that the educational system as a whole should be re-evaluated as well. International education leader Ken Robinson appeals to everyone to do just. In a TED talk listed in TED's "most viewed" category (which you can view in our slideshow below), Robinson states that "the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not."

This is no warm-and-fuzzy declaration, since Robinson contends that creativity, which we parents "squander...pretty ruthlessly," is as important as literacy and will be the currency that drives tomorrow's workplace -- not the ability to perform well on standardized tests or conform to college application grids. To neglect this or steer children away from their passions because they might not get a related job is, according to Robinson, "benign advice now profoundly mistaken."

Robinson's clarion call for a radical rethinking of today's educational model has significant implications for the way we currently shepherd our kids through not just the college admissions process, but their entire scholastic experience from kindergarten onward. Says Robinson: "Our educational system has mined our minds in the way that we've strip-mined the earth, for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children."

Presumably, we have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're parenting them, as well.

For more insights into the college admissions process and to watch two of Robinson's TED talks, see the slideshow below.

(Flickr photo: Beraldo Leal)

Parents & College