As the frenzied admissions season winds to a close, many students finally know where they will be attending college in the fall.
But there remains a troubling question: how much damage was done along the way?
This year’s crop of applicants faced an unusually grueling admissions process. A demographic bubble has produced the largest group of graduating seniors in history, and they now are facing rejection by colleges at record rates — more than 90 percent at Harvard and Yale, for example.
There will be more disappointment this week as the May 1 admissions deadline passes and thousands who were on waiting lists learn that there are no spots left for them. And today’s high school sophomores and juniors may face worse odds. After a 15-year climb, the number of high school graduates still hasn’t peaked — that is expected to happen within the next two years.
“The college admissions process is an initiation rite into adulthood,” says Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of books on teenage stress and resiliency for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “But if success is defined very narrowly, such as a fat envelope from a specific college, then many kids end up going through it and feeling like a failure.”
Students complain about lack of sleep, stomach pain and headaches, but doctors and educators also worry that stress tied to academic achievement can lead to depression, eating disorders and other mental health problems.Continue reading the main story
“There are some kids who can handle it,” says Denise Pope, a Stanford University education lecturer and author of “Doing School,” a book about stress and academics. “But some of these kids have had college on the brain since sixth or seventh grade or even earlier. When you have that kind of stress over that kind of time, that’s where it starts to worry us.”
At the start of the admissions season, Austin Grogin, 18, from Bellaire High School near Houston, applied to 12 colleges, writing different essays for each school. He had strong test scores and a journalism internship at The Houston Chronicle, he had organized a major breast cancer fund-raiser at his school, and he hoped to attend Emory University in Atlanta. “I had countless stomachaches and headaches,” says Mr. Grogin.
By April, he was checking online at least twice a day, and was stunned when Emory didn’t accept him.
“At first I refreshed the page to make sure it wasn’t a mistake,” he said. When the official rejection letter arrived in the mail, he invited his friends over and burned it. “I felt burned by the school,” he says, adding that he is looking forward to attending his second choice, the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Some high schools are trying to improve the process by easing up on the workload of seniors who are filling out college applications. At Princeton High School in New Jersey, Patti Lieberman, a guidance counselor, says she emphasizes stories of real students who won better opportunities — like research grants and White House internships — after going to slightly less competitive schools. “We try to teach them, ‘Bloom where you are planted,’ ” she says.
Stanford University’s School of Education this week is kicking off Challenge Success, expanding the mission of its previous program, Stressed Out Students. Challenge Success will work with high schools, teenagers and parents to help them redefine success in college admission and academic achievement in general.
“College admission is how a lot of people are defining success these days,” says Dr. Pope, founder of the group. “We want to challenge people to achieve the healthier form of success, which is about character, well-being, physical and mental health and true engagement with learning.”
Dr. Ginsburg says parents can help children develop resiliency for coping with life’s ups and downs. The key, he says, is to teach them that their parents’ high expectations of them aren’t tied to grades or accomplishments. “It means teaching them, ‘I know who you are deep inside, and I always expect to see that compassion and generosity in you,’ ” says Dr. Ginsburg.
After achieving perfect scores on his SATs, Sam Werner of Norwalk, Conn., was devastated by rejections from Stanford and Princeton. Mr. Werner was also on the crew and golf teams, performed in his high school musical and ranked third in his class.
“I kept wondering what more I could have done,” he says. “I realize I didn’t found a company or discover a new insect. I feel like it’s coming to a point where you have to do something like that to get into schools like Princeton or Stanford.”
Today, Mr. Werner, a pre-med student at Notre Dame, says he has new perspective on being “rejected” by his top college picks. “At the time, it felt like it was the biggest deal in the world that I didn’t get into those schools,” he says. “But I love it here. Looking back on it now, this is definitely the right place for me.”