“Cheat. Bribe. Lie.” The CNN headline1 sheds critical light on an important issue lurking beneath the college admissions scheme dubbed “Varsity Blues” revealed this week: The anxiety that both students and parents experience during the college admissions process is palpable, and can push even those with all of the advantages that wealth and fame offer to make terrible, decisions.

Cheat on your tests to make the grade. Bribe the people who have the power to sway the admissions committee. Lie about the bribe. Call it a donation. Wrap it up with a bow so that it appears to be an act of goodwill. This, not hard work and perseverance, is what will get you into the “right” college and open doors to a successful future. Is this the message we intend to send our children?

In a report titled, “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values,” Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common revealed that a large majority of youth across a diverse sample are internalizing messages indicating that parents appear to prioritize personal success. When asked to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others, almost 80% of youth surveyed chose high achievement and personal happiness as important to them, where only 20% chose caring for others. The message is clear: Work on high achievement and personal happiness first; then shift to caring.

A 2012 survey on ethics among youth compiled by the Josephson Institute revealed alarming statistics about cheating. Of the 23,000 high school students from charter, public, and private schools surveyed, 51% admitted to cheating one or more times during that academic year, and 57% of respondents agreed with the following statement: “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.”

Student Studying in Dorm

American teens are getting the message loud and clear: Do what you have to do to get into college. Underlying this message are stress and anxiety. It comes as no surprise that not all students have the financial means to partake in the cheat, bribe, and lie technique to fast track success and guarantee acceptance, so where does that leave the rest of our hard-working students?

The college admissions process should be a period of development where parents take on a supportive role as teens begin to figure out who they hope to become and where they might go to follow a path toward their future. For many American teens, however, financial constraints, achievement pressure, inequality, and lack of access complicate the process.

College entrance exams have long been touted as the great equalizer, but that’s simply not accurate. For kids who have the means and access to tutors, SAT prep classes, and private tutoring, the final scores are likely to improve over time, giving these lucky students an edge in the endless pool of applicants. For the vast majority of students who lack access, the stress only increases. They have to work overtime in other areas to compensate for their lack of access.

The burden of stress and anxiety on the college admissions process can negatively impact both students and parents. Both groups ratchet up the pressure to work harder and achieve more. In a separate report titled, “Turning the Tide,” Making Caring Common shines a spotlight on the stress and anxiety associated with the college admissions process and calls upon parents and schools to reframe the process in a positive light.

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The problem, of course, is that to truly turn the tides and focus on the whole student instead of the scores and numbers, we need a fairly substantial societal shift in perspective. The “elite” colleges and universities work hard to earn those coveted top fifty lists year after year, and hopeful parents look to those lists to seek out programs that will guarantee future success for their soon-to-be young adults. It’s a flawed system, at best. In a country that boasts over 5,000 colleges and universities, how can it be that only fifty of them measure up?

The Turning the Tide report includes a considerable list of starting points, many of which parents can use to help students step away from the achievement pressure associated with chasing the top fifty and find their best match school, instead. 

Expand their Thinking about “Good” Schools

The United States has a broad range of excellent colleges and universities. To focus on a short list of “elite” schools is to limit your teen’s worldview. Research and visit a wide variety of schools in several different regions of the country.

The best way to find the best match for your student is to take a good look around and consider a number of different schools. Does your student already have a potential major in mind?  That’s a good starting point, but do consider that humans are apt to change their minds. Is your teen drawn to smaller or larger campuses? Does your teen have any interest in learning abroad?

Stepping away from the name brand schools to look into the excellent programs all around us helps students consider where they truly want to begin this next chapter of their lives. 

Dial Down the Test Pressure

Taking the SAT over and over again won’t necessarily improve the score, and spending every free moment studying for the test will only increase the stress and anxiety associated with it. Help your teen find a healthy balance between preparing for the test and decompressing.

Many teens lack the coping skills to combat the anxiety associated with test taking. Practice deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation to help your teen use healthy stress reduction techniques.

Teens today seem to know everything about everyone else. Between comparing grades that come in in live time thanks to grade portals to sharing test scores and other achievements, the culture of comparison adds to the stress teens experience when they sit down to take these tests.

You can help your teen cope with this stress by remaining positive and providing unconditional support. Phrases like, “the SAT is just one test; we don’t measure success by one score in this family,” and, “I know there’s a lot of pressure surrounding this test. If the chatter about test prep is making you anxious, it’s okay to take some time for yourself to focus on your own study strategies.”

Though it’s natural for teens to talk and compare, it’s a good idea to encourage your teens to keep their scores to themselves. Nothing is gained from comparing test scores, but the fear of not measuring up can occur when kids start throwing these numbers around. Encourage your teen to say, “I don’t like to talk about my scores” when the conversation turns to numbers. 

Consider Quality over Quantity

Many teens feel the pressure to play several sports, join every club at school, and volunteer at a variety of places. They build their resumes, but do they actually enjoy what they’re doing? Are the endless activities contributing to their future goals?

Encourage your teen to slow down and focus on activities that are meaningful to them. A long resume indicates a busy (read: stressed) lifestyle. A commitment to a few meaningful activities shows interest, engagement, and work ethic. 

Focus on Authenticity

Teens feel the pressure to load their course schedules with AP and honors classes to showcase their academic strengths, but this can result in lost sleep, increased anxiety, and achievement pressure.

Encourage your teen to enroll in the high-level courses that are meaningful to them, and balance those with other courses. We talk a big game about “self-care” in this country, but then we teach our youth to burn themselves out in the pursuit of excellence. By encouraging your teen to pursue his or her interests and strengths, you teach your teen to achieve balance in education while making room for new learning.

The college admissions scheme is actually an opportunity to hit the reset button on the whole process. If we’ve become so consumed with perceived success that we feel the need to cheat, bribe, and lie to engineer that success, we’ve lost our moral compass entirely. What we can do is show our teens that with hard work and strong ethics, they already have what it takes to find and enroll in a college that suits them. This begins with the messages we send at home.

I believe in you. Start there.

 

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Last Updated: Mar 15, 2019