College admissions. It’s the most stressful, complicated, anxiety-producing experience most adolescents have ever been through. For parents, too.
Until the May 1 deadline, many high school seniors and their parents will be wondering if they’ve been accepted to any college on their wish list, and if they can afford to go there. The whole process seems to get worse every year, with dropping selectivity rates, increasing tuition, staggering student loan debt, and brand-obsessed parents frantic to get their kids into Ivy League schools.
What in the world has happened? When did choosing colleges become the thing that determined the entire trajectory of your life, future career, earnings, and personal satisfaction? When I applied to college way back in the 1980s, I met with my high school counselor once. I visited one school (where we didn’t even get out of the car), and applied to a total of three colleges. I had no idea what I wanted to study, or what career I intended to pursue. That’s what college was for, right?
In 2015, half of high school seniors sent out between six and twenty college applications. Some go far beyond that. At a school in Camden, New Jersey, one senior sent out forty-five applications, and another sent seventy.
The Pressure of Getting Accepted
And it’s a vicious cycle. The Common App makes it much easier to apply to multiple colleges and universities. Every year, it seems harder to get into college, so kids panic and apply to more schools. The increased number of applications then drives down acceptance rates and selectivity rankings. That makes the next year’s seniors even more panicked. Today’s seniors also get to deal with increased rates of rejection. Getting rejected from one or two schools doesn’t take nearly the psychological toll that rejection from eight or ten does.
Add SAT prep courses, essay coaches, summers volunteering with orphans in Ghana, four stabs at the SAT, twelve AP courses, night sweats, and the jittery conviction that everything in your life rides on you getting into Stanford or Princeton. Is it any wonder that students are stressed out and anxious? More than a quarter of American teens report feeling “extreme stress” during the academic year. About one third of students report having difficulty functioning due to depression and almost half say they felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year. Teens list increased amount of high performance expectations, academic stress, and colleges’ rising selectivity listed as causes for the anxiety they experience. College application stress is on the rise.
What if we all just decided not to participate in the madness?
Cutting Down On College Application Stress
Our third and last child is a senior in high school. He knew that he wanted to study computer engineering, and no more than four hours from home. Somewhere in the counseling process of with our older two kids, we heard this advice: “The perfect college for you is one that has the program you want to study, that you can get into, and that you can afford.”
We lived this advice like Gospel truth. We made a list of schools within four hours from home. We listened to his counselor’s recommendations. We visited three schools that fit these parameters, submitted three applications, and were pleased (but not surprised) when he got into all three. He is now leisurely deciding which program feels like the best fit. I think he’s decided already, but he’s savoring the various possibilities in his head before it all becomes real. For all of us, finding the right college this time has been painless, low-drama, and fairly stress-free.
In Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, author Frank Bruni argues that many families decide where to send their child to college using a simple line of reasoning: “the more prestigious the school you attend, the higher your salary will be after you graduate.” According to Bruni, parents focus their efforts on getting their children into the best possible college they can afford. They figure that even if they’re paying more tuition now, they’re maximizing their kids’ earnings down the road. “We’ve bought into this whole idea that this moment in late March, early April, when you find out where you’re going to go to school, sets the whole trajectory for your life. And it’s so untrue and it’s the source of so much unnecessary anxiety.”
Choosing the Right College Isn’t About Prestige
Paying more for tuition doesn’t necessarily mean greater earnings later. According to the Wall Street Journal, for fields like science, technology, education and math, “it largely doesn’t matter whether students go to a prestigious, expensive school or a low-priced one—expected earnings turn out the same. So, families may be wasting money by chasing an expensive diploma in those fields.” And employers care more about what you know, and not so much about where you learned it. A 2014 Gallup survey asked employers to list the most important factors in hiring. Only nine percent of respondents ranked where an applicant had gone to college as “very important.”
Applying to fifteen, twenty schools? Watching our son torture himself as a failure if he doesn’t go to MIT? Spending $275,000 so we can get the most prestigious decal for our car rear window? Not doing it. Where our kid goes to college is not who he is. Instead, we’re encouraging him to remember that what matters most is what he learns, and what he will do with it.