College Admission: “The Beast in the Corner.”
“My parents really want me to go to college…I really want to make them proud, but I’m worried I’m not good enough.”
“We spend the majority of our time in school or doing schoolwork, so failing at it is sort of like failing at life.”
“We live around this idea that college is the main point in your life that almost defines you…This idea that college defines our worth and our future really messes with our mindsets.”
These are only some of the responses by Packer Upper School students to an anonymous survey regarding college-induced stress. While these answers all came from different students, they share a common and very relatable theme: an inherent fear of failure, and an intrinsic self-doubt.
It seems that the dreaded college process has, much to the dismay of Packer’s college counselors, crept into everyday conversations as early as sophomore year.
“When we come to academic advising night in tenth grade, our message is ‘Don’t think about college! It’s not what you should be occupying your time with now,’” said Upper School College Counselor Nila Fortune.
So why have these conversations suddenly taken such strong, and premature, control of our lives, especially compared to years prior? It seems the culprit for this lies in two places: the general decline of acceptance rates for colleges, and external pressure.
Each year, the same story of a ‘wonder child’ is told: “someone who applied to every single Ivy League college and then got into every single one,” explained Ms. Fortune. Meanwhile, the narrative of a reasonable student who applies to four realistic schools and gets accepted by all is never mentioned. This constant glorification of those who get into the most prestigious colleges dangerously focuses us on the reputations our colleges, as it has become a matter of pride and glory rather than a search for the most suitable school for each student. This desire to stretch as far as we can to go to the most prestigious schools possible creates stress and often, it creates disappointment. According to Ms. Fortune, “[The college process] doesn’t have to be so stressful; it becomes stressful when you stretch too much.”
College-related stress is intertwined with and often worsened by parental pressure. One student wrote that, “If I don’t get into my top schools, or schools that my parents want me to go to, I will feel unintelligent and really stressed.” While our parents may not be explicitly telling us what colleges we should be going to, there are, according to Ms. Fortune, “subliminal messages that students take. For example, if their parent takes them to the alumni weekend at the college, and they buy them a tee-shirt, what is the message there?” These interactions create a pressure on students, one that many of us can relate to, based upon an expectation that our parents are counting on us. This is problematic, and breeds an environment in which students directly correlate their self-worth and success to their parent’s approval.
Finally, the way that students self consciously compare themselves to others creates immense anxiety. One student’s response to the survey articulated the well-known culture of stress at Packer very well, explaining that, “it only becomes stressful when I compare myself to others … If students could keep to themselves and know that what they are doing is enough, and stop feeling like they need to compare or compete with others, Packer [would] be less stressful.” It is surely detrimental for one to question their own level of preparation, but even more damaging is the comparison of oneself to others. Different people are good at different things, and when students compare themselves to each other, they engage in the delusion that their accomplishments can all be measured in the same way. This delusion, that academic accomplishments make some students better than others, is dangerous for stress levels, and dangerous for mental health.
The college process is changing the way we experience high school dramatically. College talk has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, causing us to stay up late in order to endlessly boost our GPA, weaving its way into our conversations both at home and in the student center, and dominating the media. Society is changing to become more and more focused on what colleges we go to, and with this change, the process of deciding what college we end up at is becoming increasingly stressful.
Ultimately, college has crept into the backs of our minds, constantly lurking there. As the Dean of the Class of 2020, Ms. Iberraken, so accurately put it, “The beast in the corner has gotten bigger.”