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College: Reward At The End Of The Finish Line?

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We need to stop thinking of college as being the reward at the end of the finish line. The prevailing perspective today is that kids who work hard “should” be able to get into certain colleges. And if they don’t, someone has taken their “spot.”

 I shouldn’t have been surprised by the level of outrage that parents felt following the announcement of the college admissions cheating scam perpetrated by wealthy parents who paid to get their kids into competitive colleges. The fury stems from the notion that college admissions is a balanced equation: if my child gets good grades + does well on the SATs + has lots of activities + excels in athletics + leads a community service project, that should = admission to the top college of my child’s choice.

The reality is that college admissions doesn’t work in such a simple way. I often tell students and parents that there are many factors out of a child’s control that affect their admission to competitive colleges. If we change our mindset about college admissions, it will result in improved high school experiences for our kids. 

It’s no surprise that kids are overly scheduled today. Athletics are starting in preschool. Kids are specializing by middle school. Injuries that were previously exclusive to professional athletes are now being seen in high schoolers. All this seems to be in the name of paving the way for college admissions. And there’s equal intensity in all the activities kids get involved in, not just sports. The reality is, odds are that most of the kids who follow this high-pressure path will not end up getting the spot in the college they’re setting their sights on. It’s just plain math.

 And we’re seeing, more and more, that kids, once they get to college face a mental health crisis. Some of these difficulties may be due to the fact that students either don’t get into the college they feel they “deserve” to get into and thus are so disappointed by the compromise they feel they have to make, they never give the college they’re attending a chance. Some of the challenges that kids face may also be for those who do get into their first choice college but when they get there it’s not the nirvana they imagined when they worked so hard for so many years to get there. And then they wonder why they’re not happy, quickly facing an identity crisis.

 What if kids only participated in activities they were genuinely interested in? What if kids just participated but didn’t need to excel? What if they took half the number of AP and honors classes they’re currently expected to take? What if high schoolers actually got a good night’s sleep every night? What if we didn’t tell our kids, if you work hard you can go anywhere you want (because they probably can’t)? What if we didn’t focus on the status of colleges but the educational experiences students can have at the wide range of colleges available? I believe we’d have happier, healthier kids. And I believe they’d still get great educations at the many terrific colleges and universities available.

Anna Casey has worked with children and parents for over 25 years as an educator of young children, an admissions officer, a blogger, and a parenting coach. She lives in Denver with her husband and 16-year-old daughter. Her son attends college in Massachusetts. You can read more from Anna at anna-casey.com.

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