A Nightmare

Billie Eilish sings, in Everything I Wanted:

I had a dream

I got everything I wanted

Not what you’d think

And if I’m being honest

It might’ve been a nightmare

To anyone who might care

Thought I could fly 

So I stepped off the Golden

Nobody cried

Nobody even noticed

I saw them standing right there

Kinda thought they might care

She captures what is being played out among those like her throughout the nation –– mostly young, privileged, female –– who are going through a mental health crisis of frightening proportions.

At a time when so many are dying or sick from Covid, when so many are food insecure and/or homeless (or soon to be so), when our very republic is at risk of being under attack from within, it is hard to be sympathetic about the angst of those born, as Creedence sang, with a silver spoon in hand.

I have spent most of my career as a guidance director at highly diverse schools in northeast New Jersey. These schools have large populations of high-achieving, generally wealthy students as well as large numbers of economically disadvantaged students. 

I always trained my counselors to give the majority of their attention to the most vulnerable kids. “Those who demand your attention will get what they want, either from you or through some other source. Your moral imperative is to take care of those who do not come to your doorstep, whose needs you have to discover,” I would tell them.

The bulk of my energy was, unfortunately, taken away from this priority; it was to keep kids, mostly like those described by Eilish, alive. At one school, a student walked out of class to the railroad tracks and stepped in front of a moving train. At another, a sixth grader committed suicide. A sixth grader!

Almost every day we would have one, and sometimes multiple, instances of suicidal ideation or attempts. Our Crisis Teams would follow all kids who were sent out for evaluation by our student assistance counselors. At any given time, we generally had at least a dozen students who were “red”, meaning they were at extremely high risk of self-harm. The total list, by the end of the year, would generally be well over a hundred.

More than one in five of high school girls have seriously considered suicide. Eleven percent of ninth grade girls have attempted suicide with nearly 4% making attempts that required medical attention. Every 100 minutes a teen takes their life, and suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens. Rates of depression and suicide have been rising steadily and rapidly, with similarly increasing numbers of males, economically disadvantaged students and students of color experiencing depression and suicide.

Many have tried to explain or analyze the trend. Abused and neglected teens, those with family history of depression or untreated mental health or substance abuse, and those suffering trauma such as death or divorce are more likely to suffer from depression, but that does little to capture the scope of the problem. Why are those with none of these pre morbidities experiencing such common feelings of helplessness and hopelessness? Why are those, as Eilish sings, who have it all experiencing the nightmare of depression, anxiety, stress and suicidal ideation?

I did an exercise with students where I last worked, asking each of 2000 of them to tell their parents one thing they would want them to know. A huge majority gave this open-ended question an identical answer: we are stressed out, and you are making it worse. 

Economic uncertainty, propelled to unimaginable depths due to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, certainly is a worsening factor. Many students worry that they will not be able to have the economic success of their parents. 

There is one thing, though, that is driving this trend that we, as educators, as parents, as those in the media and those in the college admissions community, can do something about: the pernicious trend to push students harder and faster, from a young age, to excel in the college admissions sweepstakes.

Many of the students who I talk to who are depressed, anxious and frequently suicidal describe the same feelings. They describe being out of control, of unrealistic expectations, of fear that any setback, from a bad grade to a poor athletic performance, will be indelibly etched in their future aspirations and ambitions. They describe the feeling of being on a treadmill that is going faster and faster until they simply can’t keep up.

I think of how different things were when I applied to college. There were no books or magazines or newspaper articles on the subject. Rarely did anyone ever talk about it, and it was as routine as getting a driver’s license. Parents had almost no part in the process except for writing checks. College costs per year were about the same as an inexpensive car. Colleges were need blind, there was only one financial aid form, and you could figure out how much you would get in financial aid by the very public federal formula. 

Most students did not stray far from home. I never heard anyone say they were stressed about applying to college. There was no such thing as SAT prep, independent counseling, or enrollment management.

The most important change is that there was not such a high bar to get into highly selective colleges. You could take risks by taking courses in high school to really explore interests. Now, many students feel enormous pressure to take absolutely crushing courseloads to be in the running. Caitlin Flanagan, who writes for The Atlantic, noted that it is true that students may need to take the most difficult courses in preparation for applying to elite institutions, but it “is also true that such a curriculum is going to crush a lot of kids. A regimen of brutal academic hazing may be appropriate in some disciplines for medical students or Ph.D. candidates, but it is not appropriate for fifteen-year-olds.”

I did a presentation with the former dean of admissions at Princeton, Fred Hargadon, some years ago. His answers to questions from the audience were chilling. When asked about whether it was better to take the higher level course and get a B or the less demanding one and get an A, he responded that if you wanted to get into a school like Princeton, you needed to take all the highest courses and get A’s. Similarly, when asked whether you needed to focus on demonstrating excellence in a single area, a “hook” to get in, he commented that he saw no reason why he couldn’t expect kids to have multiple areas of distinctive excellence.

Each of us has our part in this destructive process. As for parents, they see college admissions as the evidence of successful child-rearing. There is a confluence of several characteristics of this generation of parents such as a sense of entitlement, a suspicion of authority and a bad habit of living too vicariously through their children. The frantic involvement of many parents in the process is, from my perspective, a cover for this profound parental anxiety: Did I do a good job with this child? One admissions director describes the results: the most anxious, stressed out, sleep deprived, judged and tested generation in history – a generation trained to please adults.

The media certainly has done their part to make this problem worse. 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. More and more unscientific “rating” systems are published and represented as valid means of judging success and failure. As snake oil salesmen for higher education, many in the media have knowingly engaged in sensationalism at the expense of our children. Pseudoscientific instant rankings and eye-catching stories are the substitutes for well-reasoned and well-researched writings.

Many in the media have 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 College 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. Thacker concludes: “The stewardship of student needs has been forsaken.”

Perhaps the greatest cause of mental health consequences from perceptions of college admissions are the actions of the college admissions community. The most dangerous words I hear from college representatives, not just of the most selective colleges but from colleges way down on the pecking order that want to emulate them, is that students should take “the most demanding schedule available to them” if they want to be considered for admission. The most selective colleges keep raising the bar for even being considered for admissions simply because they can. Students feel the need to take more rigorous schedules, get better grades and test scores, demonstrate excellence in more and more areas, just to stay in the running. One needs to look no further than youth sports to see that we as a nation are pushing kids too hard, too fast and too soon.

Is the genie out of the bottle, and is it impossible to get it back in? Perhaps. But that does not mean that we cannot take meaningful steps to change things. A study by UNC Chapel Hill found that students who took more college level courses such as AP or IB in high school did better in college…up to a point. After 5, the correlation actually went down. UNC-CH has since noted that taking more than 5 such courses will not aid one in admissions.

The movement away from standardized testing is certainly positive. As a result of the pandemic, most colleges have chosen to be SAT optional or SAT blind this year. Remarkably, many plan to continue this at least in the near future. 

Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost for Admissions at Oregon State University, notes in his admissions blog that “we all have to admit that complexity in our profession is good for business. A lot of people would be unemployed if college admission were more transparent and easier to understand and less stressful.” He notes that this might be the perfect time to radically change the admissions process. “If I were King of Admissions, we’d have a central application clearinghouse. Every high school would have the same transcript and profile.” He notes that this could be like Great Britain’s UCAS, where applications and documents are centrally managed and students rank their colleges in order of preference.

Students could start their college applications, he recommends, as high-school freshmen, by supplying to a national database simple biographical and parental information that is supplemented each year by the addition of grades, accomplishments, test scores, recommendations, and students’ individual interests. When choices have been made and it comes time to apply in the senior year, students simply log in and send the whole packet at once to the college(s) they wish to apply to. The Coalition for College application has taken a stab at this, but has not gained enough traction to have a major effect.

If we truly care about our children, we all –– parents, counselors, the media, the college admissions community –– need to get together to tone down the mania around college admissions. Our children’s lives, in the most literal sense, depend upon it.

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 swcollegeconsulting@gmail.com or 973-919-6798.

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