Students Suffer from Achievement Pressure

"Rather than giving their students a leg up, an emerging body of evidence shows that hyper-competitive and overly demanding high school experiences can take the joy out of learning, undermine mental health, and leave teens less prepared to make the most of their college years," contends a recent article in the NACAC Journal of College Admission. Indeed, many educational and mental health professionals across the board are researching their concern about the ever-increasing competition around college and the way in which it is reshaping adolescence for too many teens.

Many, if not most teens, are not developmentally ready to manage the intense academic course loads and demands of over-scheduled extra-curricular activities. "We have put the educational cart before the developmental horse and, in so doing, have lost sight of key aspects of our most important responsibility: to foster our teenagers' health growth and developments," says clinical psychologist David. L. Gleason.

New Narrative Drives Frenzy

Nevertheless, both students and parents take a full court press approach to the college admissions process and a "new narrative - one that designates perfection as a prerequisite for admissions - is increasingly driving" the college frenzy. Colleges themselves add fuel to the fire.  Virtually every college tells candidates that it wants to see students challenge themselves with the most rigorous curriculum offered at the student’s high school. Hence, the plethora of AP classes offered at many schools.

Many school, and independent, counselors are seeing unprecedented levels of stress among students and the anxiety around college is emerging earlier and earlier in the high school years. Research confirms these reports. "A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found endemic levels of chronic stress among high-achieving students engaged in the college admissions process."  

 Follow your Interests

Fortunately, many schools and educational professionals are working towards shifting this paradigm. Daniel Miller, counselor at a suburban Chicago high school encourages students to "follow your interests, do what makes you happy, and the rest will fall into place" instead of taking a slew of AP classes "because you think a college wants you to take them." The same school recently dropped its "300 Club" where student members were required to complete 300 hours of community service.  "We didn’t' want students logging all these hours just for the recognition... We wanted them to focus on the quality of those experiences, not the quantity," highlighted Miller.

Colleges appear to be getting on the bandwagon as well. The Harvard Graduate School of Education, for instance, is working towards transforming the college admissions process with its "Turning the Tide" initiative.   Robert Massa, senior VP for enrollment at Drew University, asserts "...if we - meaning college admission offices - say we're concerned about non-cognitive factors, we need to behave that way.  We can't have the smallest difference in a student's academic profile become a reason to deny or put on a waitlist.  We have to find ways to recalibrate the process."

Let’s hope they do.