The Tail Wagging the Dog

Overheard at a library in a wealthy New Jersey suburb:
Girl A: Did you hear Jake had cancer?
Girl B: Yeah. But I heard that he’s in remission now.
Girl A: He’s so lucky…he’ll have a great college essay to write.
As a college counselor, I get to see first hand how preparation for college admission is profoundly, and negatively affecting the way many of our children are growing up. At a recent event where I sat on a panel on the college admissions process with the former Dean of Admissions at Princeton, a girl stood up to ask a question. She started by telling the audience that her name was Ivy because her parents wanted her to attend an Ivy League college and that she attended a pre-school named Little Ivy Leaguers.

I have a pretty good idea of what a girl like Ivy’s day is like. She starts her school day at 7 am so she can fit in AP Economics in addition to the five AP’s she has in her regular schedule. She plays violin in her orchestra during the elective period. She goes to crew practice immediately after school. Her evenings are spent doing homework, doing some SAT prep problems and practicing the violin (when she is not attending Latin Club or Key Club events). She send Instant Messages to some friends from midnight to one before collapsing to begin the next day. Weekends and summers are spent at sports camps, SAT prep courses and what is perceived as mandatory volunteer work. She has been thinking about where she wanted to go to college as long as she can remember and it consumes her thoughts every day. Her parents have lived vicariously through Ivy all her life and have been hyper-involved in every aspect of her life. She feels the pressure to please her parents and meet their high expectations. High school for too many students like this, has become a time to strategize rather to experience.

Marilee Jones, former Dean of Admissions at MIT, has been touring the country with the President of the American Pediatric Society talking about college admissions as a mental health issue. She speaks of generational causes for this mania, describing baby boomer parents as over-involved and busy parents who don’t trust authority but love experts, and their Millennium children as “the most anxious, stressed out, sleep deprived, judged and tested generation in history – a generation trained to please adults.”

Its not just neurotic, over-achieving baby boomers who are to blame. In the 1980’s, there was a drop in the number of high school graduates. Colleges employed sophisticated enrollment management techniques to bolster popularity. Now that the children of the baby boom generation have swelled the number of high school graduates, techniques appropriate to an era of student scarcity could not be more damaging Commercialization of the college admissions process has resulted in education being viewed as a product rather than a process and students as consumers rather than learners. As it has become more important to look impressive than be impressive, substance has taken a back seat to reputation and status.

The media has perhaps been the most destructive force in this process. The US News and World Report rankings – eagerly awaited by parents each year – have helped colleges to create an aura of even greater elusiveness. Relying on input statistics such as average test scores and acceptance rates as major components in their rankings, they have induced colleges to seek more and more applicants in order to simply have more to deny. With Harvard having acceptance rates in the single digits and Stanford denying over 70% of students with a perfect math or verbal SAT scores or a perfect 4.0 average, these publications encourage practices bad for students and colleges.

Recently, in a story reported by both the Washington Post and the Bergen Record, a private college counselor advised his clients that their daughter would have a better chance of admission into an Ivy League school if they moved to another town and entered her in a local beauty pageant. They followed his advice. The result: their daughter was accepted at Yale. This kind of coverage reinforces the idea that drastic measures are necessary and justified to attain admission to highly selective institutions. This is not exactly encouraging an ideal for finding a match between what a student needs in higher education and what a college offers.
Newsweek Magazine has come up with the brilliant idea of ranking high schools by the number of Advanced Placement (AP) tests taken per student, stating in the publication: “It’s one of the best measures available to compare a wide range of students’ readiness for higher-level work”. Never mind that numerous studies have come to the opposite conclusion: While student performance on AP examinations is strongly related to college performance, merely taking AP or other honors-level courses in high school is not a valid indicator of the likelihood that students will perform well in college. But to rank high schools by only the AP courses offered is a gross and highly misleading statistic. It is also damaging, an inducement for schools to offer AP courses no matter the quality of the students or the teaching. Like the college rankings have done to the colleges, this is one more attempt by the media to have the tail wag the dog.

The repositioning of higher education in the public mind as the ultimate goal of status gained by association is not merely observed by the press, but is actively promoted by it as more and more unscientific “rating” systems are published and represented as valid means of judging success and failure. The snake oil salesmen for higher education, the media has knowingly engaged in sensationalism at the expense of our children. Pseudoscinetific instant rankings and eye-catching stories are the substitutes for well-reasoned and well-researched writings.

The media has abrogated their responsibility to give clarity to this process. “Fear, anxiety, myth, secrecy, false precision, hype and educational irrationality characterize the admissions landscape,” notes Lloyd Thacker in Colleges Unranked. “The way the media is shaping our perspective about this critical life transition is simply wrong and misinformed and very few voices have emerged to put the brakes on this runaway train.” Students and their parents will continue to game the system for, in the view they get from the media, that is the only choice they believe they have. As Thacker concludes: “The stewardship of student needs has been forsaken.”

Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as or 973-919-6798.

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