college admissions


I will never forget the news about my friend's daughter: She was going to Stanford University – and felt devastated. Her friends were all going to prestigious Eastern schools, while she had "settled" for her second choice.
Just the week before, I had spoken with the father of three teenage boys – all great kids, but low-average students. And each felt like a failure.
Then, listening to the college counselor at my daughter's college prep night, I was struck by how high the bar has been set for youngsters: Average now equals failure. American society is so competitive that the pressure has filtered down to the youngest children.
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Is there any place in childhood where you can just be where you are, not "getting ready for the next level?" My son's teachers in middle school pushed hard to get the kids ready for high school. I understand the pressure teachers feel, but I wonder if kids might not be better off if teachers just helped them do something well for the feeling of satisfaction in a job well done.
I do know of a fifth-grade teacher who doesn't always speed through assignments and grade kids on their first effort. Several times during the year, she works with each child until an assignment merits an "A." Each student gains the experience of producing fine work.
But she is an exception. When I mentioned my concern to fellow psychologists, each had examples. One woman's sister had gone to a very high-powered high school. Her teachers and classmates had made her feel like a failure, because she was only a C+ student. Though she went on to get a doctorate and now holds a prestigious job, she still sees herself as a failure.
In contrast, another psychologist described her sister, too, who had struggled through school. But their parents had encouraged her to find many sources of satisfaction and kept telling her she would find her niche. She did, and is now a happy, successful adult.
Maybe there is an underlying belief that, if we make satisfaction unattainable, children will be more motivated. But perhaps we will end up with highly motivated people who never experience satisfaction. Or youngsters like the teenagers who feel that only A's "count," so why bother if you can't achieve them.
Some of this pressure represents a misguided sense of what it takes to be successful in this world. In less pleasant cases, it is a sign of people who use their children for their own sense of status.
In parenting workshops, I often ask participants to consider the question: "Are the people I know who went to Stanford and Berkeley so much happier than those who went to other colleges?" If the answer is not a resounding yes, then what are we doing to our kids?
Society has put so many conditions on children's value, it's easy to see how they can end up feeling like nothing. Psychologists practicing in affluent communities are kept in business by this trend.
The pressure also seeps into activities out of school. One mother described her feeling of inadequacy at a young child's birthday party. One little guest came late because of chess lessons. Another left early because of violin lessons. The first mother was almost embarrassed that she wasn't in any hurry, and was just taking her child home to hang out in the backyard with the cat.
I tried to give her some perspective in seeing that overprogrammed children do not always benefit. A few excel, but many just wear out or don't develop the capacity to pursue self-initiated activities. I don't encourage parents to eliminate expectations, but instead to appreciate children and help them find skills that give them pleasure regardless of the grade, the money, or the status that goes with them.
After 12 years of college, what is my greatest source of satisfaction? A patch of ground well weeded. A friend well cared for. The ability to notice the wonderful things that happen when the autumn sunset puts a rosy filter in front of the fading hydrangeas.
I enjoy my work, but this is not because I have a PhD from Berkeley. It's from parents who loved me unconditionally and helped me, by their example and support, find many sources of satisfaction in life.
It is possible to motivate people without keeping satisfaction unattainable. In fact, what could be more motivating than the desire to reproduce the wonderful feeling of a job well done?
There are many routes to happiness that do not pass through the doors of Ivy League colleges.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist.

College Admission Letters -- The Wait

Gallup just published a study confirming the issues described in this article published 10 years ago in the Christian Science Monitor. It's more about how you go to college rather than where.

College admissions capitalizing on worry?

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By Susan DeMersseman / February 15, 2005
In a country whose economy depends to a great degree on hype, it's not surprising that school grades have been swept into the mix. There's been concern about grade inflation - students getting better grades than the same work might have earned years ago. But my concern is due to the inflation and hype over the importance of grades in education these days.
Many young people are in the midst of college application mania or are waiting for news from their chosen colleges. And I have been a resentful participant in this mania, during my son's critical junior year, the year in which students need to achieve a certain grade point average and set of SAT scores for many colleges.I have felt like a hyperactive border collie nipping at my son's heels to get him to take care of every little step in this questionable process.
I know there are many students who have their own panic attacks and stress reactions. In our house I seemed to be having them for my son. On the other hand, I know of households in which the craziness is a family affair.
Being able to make us worry seems to be the mark of success for any modern advertising campaign: worry about thinning hair, indigestion, and emerging wrinkles. If we don't worry, we don't buy. We are made to worry, so that all the SAT preparation programs will have customers. So that colleges can have so many applicants that they can reject more and advertise how selective they are.
My son and I once discussed this issue, and his perspective was, "High school seems to be about grades; college is about learning."
Unfortunately, I can see why he might draw that conclusion. He has had some good teachers in high school and has learned some content. But he has also learned to focus more on classes where the grade is most important for college admission, and to focus less on classes where the content may be valuable but is less critical for college admission. What is lost in this process is hard to measure.
Some of the things that make him a fine person and a great candidate for college are not ones you get grades for. Otherwise, he'd get an "A" for navigating a huge, diverse high school and making friends in every group. An "A" for occasionally stepping in to protect another student in a way that helped to resolve a conflict. An "A" for bouncing back from disappointments. An "A" for practicing daily with a football team on which he knew he would probably never get playing time. An "A" for optimism and enthusiasm. An "A" for common sense and good judgment. And most important - an "A" for patience with his mother as she struggles - not always calmly - to help him deal with a very flawed system.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.