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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

High School and Beyond / Fighting College Craziness

The college search leads to obsession over the wrong question: Will I get in? The real question is, How can I make the transition to adulthood?

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Whenever I'm asked to speak to high school seniors or juniors on the subject of college, I begin by asking two questions that I hope will give them perspective on the college admissions process. First, I ask students to imagine that they have been turned down by their first-choice college. I then wait five seconds and push them a bit harder, saying, "Now imagine that you've also been turned down by your second-choice college. What would be the long-term effect of those two rejections on your life?"
One girl at an academically elite school in New York City teared up and cried, "I can't even hear this!" A senior in Los Angeles said he would feel humiliated for a long time, and a boy at an international school in Asia declared, "It would be a lifelong psychological injury from which you would never recover." I am naturally worried about that boy because anybody who thinks the stakes of college admissions are that high is psychologically at risk.
It's always a relief when a student has perspective. A senior girl from Cincinnati, Ohio, confidently told me that being rejected would have no effect on her at all because, she said, "I'm applying to six colleges, and they're all on my top 10 list." My favorite answer came from a girl who stated emphatically that whether you get into your first-choice college makes no difference at all. "Why not?" I queried. She looked directly at me and declared, "We're all going to be dead someday."

The Overemphasis on the "Good" College

Certainly, after you die, the name or status of the college you attended won't matter much. But for 17-year-olds, the college selection process can feel definitive, the biggest thing in their young lives. Many bright students have told me with conviction that getting into a "good" college is the key to a good job and a good life.
Is this true? From my point of view as a psychologist who has consulted for 25 years with high-pressure K–12 schools, I can see the answer is no. I'm also a child and adolescent psychologist who practiced for years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in an office midway between Harvard University and MIT. I know from clinical experience that an elite degree isn't a guarantee of happiness for many people.
This overemphasis on college acceptance distracts high school seniors and juniors from the significant psychological and developmental task they face: transitioning from childhood to an independent adult life. That's why I ask high school juniors and seniors my second mysterious question: Has your parents' behavior toward you changed in the last six months?
About 40 percent of students say that their parents' behavior has, indeed, changed, sometimes alarmingly. They report mothers unexpectedly crying about their upcoming departure (12 months in advance) and fathers wanting to walk them to school. They tell me about moms who, unasked, are filling out their college application forms and about curfews that have been tightened for senior year—or suddenly abolished. Students from divorced families see the reawakening of parental fights, this time focused on college choice, with noncustodial fathers (who are often obliged to pay tuition) frequently demanding a bigger voice. "He wants me to go to the college he went to," one girl said, "but he doesn't know me." In short, parents are acting weird.
A child's departure for college stirs up almost every family in a deep way. For the 60-plus percent of U.S. high school students who are college-bound, the college admissions process signals the official end of a boy or girl's childhood, the loss of his or her parents' day-today experience of parenting. Even in the happiest of families, it's inevitably a time of change, loss, and uncertainty. As key influencers in children's daily lives, teachers have a role to play in supporting both students and families through this transition.

The Right Questions

Every teen leaving home has to ask himself or herself, "Can I make it on my own?" Every parent watching a child depart is thinking, "Have I given my child what he or she needs? Will he or she be OK without us?" These are the right questions to ask. The uncertainty everyone feels at this developmental moment boils down to one question: Will this teenager grow up to be an independent, productive, moral, and loving young adult?
No college—not Harvard, Stanford, the University of Wisconsin, or any institution whose name we might insert—can answer that question. No matter where a child goes, he or she is going to struggle with at least one element from my menu of adult challenges: independence, productivity, moral behavior, and finding and showing genuine love. Some college students won't be able to live away from home; others won't get to class or do their homework; still others will drink too much or sexually exploit their classmates. Many won't finish college; others will work incredibly hard and graduate with distinction. Both parents and adolescents are looking for a way to predict the future, and an elite college seems like a guarantee of a great adult life.
Our society doesn't have an agreed-on rite of passage from childhood to young adulthood; therefore, the college admissions process stands in its stead. In my opinion, it's a lousy substitute because this process doesn't address students' deepest fears. When seniors worry about getting into college X or college Y, they are really worrying about their lives. Will my life be OK if I don't get into college Y? Can I consider myself a good and successful person if I don't get into college X?
There are often hidden personal questions that a student may not be able to put into words: If I go far away to the college I love, will I be abandoning my parents? Is my father right that I should apply to the college where he went? Does he know me better than I know myself? Can my single mom bear my departure? Sometimes someone outside the family, such as a teacher, can help students become more aware of these underlying fears simply by talking with them about how the college search is going and how it's affecting family life.
The reality, of course, is that the variables that make or break a student's college experience cannot be predicted from the stature of the college. Think about your own college career. Was it your classes that made the difference in the course of your life? The important variables for most people are getting assigned to a compatible roommate, finding great friends, falling in love with someone who loves you back, finding a professor who's interested in you, and making a commitment to an extracurricular activity that lays the foundation for a lifelong passion.
In daily conversations with students, teachers can play an extremely important role in bringing perspective to the college search process. There aredifferences among colleges that will likely shape a college career—for better or worse. So as they search for the best college fit, students should reflect on questions like, How do I learn best? What kinds of living situations, environments, and teaching arrangements are most comfortable for me?
In my experience, teachers are almost universally supportive ("That sounds like a great school for you") and protective ("I respect your taking a risk on applying to a college like that"), but they could do more to encourage the kind of internal reflection high school juniors and seniors need. Teachers can help students think about issues like learning styles and offer opinions about the differences among colleges that really do affect how the college experience plays out: large or small, urban or rural, close to home or far away. Teachers who want to aid a student's journey of self-discovery can pose questions that help that student think about himself or herself as a learner. A teacher might say, "I think you learn best when you can talk in class. How did it feel when you sat in a lecture with 300 other students?" or, "Have you enjoyed being editor of the yearbook? Do you want to run an on-campus organization when you get to college X?"

Addressing the Deeper Questions

As a psychologist, I encourage teachers to take a few steps beyond the academic realm and ask about how a student's family is dealing with his or her upcoming departure. Without intruding, a teacher can ask questions like, How is your family doing with your college search? Are you and your parents talking about college every day (and is that too much for you)? Are you the first to leave your family? Will you miss your friends? Are you leaving a pet? (Many students start to cry when I ask that question.)
Some teachers are afraid to go too deep with a student; some are uncomfortable when a student cries about something personal. My advice to teachers is to go a bit beyond your comfort zone and see whether, as a result, you are having more satisfying and personal conversations with students about their futures. Although it's fine to congratulate a student by observing that "the University of Minnesota will be a great place for you," saying only that misses the opportunity to ask, "Are your parents happy about you going so far away?" or "Do you have friends going with you?"
Teachers often hesitate to ask personal questions if they don't have an existing relationship with a student because they fear they won't know what to do in a more personal realm. I reassure teachers that they don't have to be a therapist for a family that is fighting about college. Family members have to work out the separation-individuation process on their own. But by asking and listening to whatever a student wants to share, you'll be giving a young person on that journey an extra layer of support.
Ideally, schools would help seniors, especially, focus on the kind of personal growth and self-challenge that's possible during one's capstone year in public school. As I discuss in The Pressured Child, the senior year should provide students with the opportunity to (1) practice their leadership skills; (2) use the process of choosing their next life step (whether college or career) for rich, unpressured self-discovery; (3) take stock of their talents and accomplishments; (4) give back to the school community in some way; and (5) participate in a ritual that marks their passage to adulthood. In terms of the last point, from a psychological point of view, I would recommend that schools offer several smaller, more intimate ceremonies that prepare the way for the whole-school graduation ritual.
What makes students and families crazy during this transition is their belief that the college admissions process is about finding the right college. It isn't. It's about a child successfully leaving the family and beginning young adulthood. Educators need to maintain that perspective when students—and families— lose it.

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