I look at the time stamps on email from my students. I routinely receive the bulk of my email in the wee hours of the morning, and even when I factor in the time changes, my students are writing their college essays as 12:30, 1:00, even 2:00 in the morning. From the essays I receive, I’ve learned that some of my students can write coherently at that hour. But I worry nonetheless.
The other night, I attended a screening of the documentary film, Race to Nowhere. The brainchild of parent and filmmaker Vicki Abeles, the film looks at the American educational system and questions the values that we as a society are passing along to our children as they push themselves through middle and high school with enormous burdens of homework and pressures for college acceptance making them physically ill.
The issues brought forth in the movie are cause for concern. Three decades ago, no one ‘prepped‘ for a standardized test. A decade ago, my students applied to 5-8 colleges. Now, for those aspiring to the most selective schools or seeking merit scholarships, a dozen or more is the norm. Can I alone change the arms race? No. Can I tell these kids to slow down? I can, but should they truly take a step back, they might find themselves at a disadvantage in this college admissions process. When I first began working as an admissions officer, we could tell students to take some honors and AP courses, if they were available. Students now feel compelled to take ALL of the AP courses, AND play a sport, AND participate in the arts, AND do community service, AND study for SAT and ACT exams. AND of course, they should do all of that well.
In the best situations, students are intrinsically motivated, set their own expectations, aspire to meet them, and have a safety net to catch them if they fail. As a society, we view college admissions as a referendum on our parenting, our teaching, and our school administration. Despite the best of intentions, parents compare their children to the neighbors’ and students compare their hours of studying and caffeine intake with their peers.
It’s easy to define success by numbers — test scores, GPAs, rankings. While we take comfort in those objective (although sometimes subjective, too) measures, they alone aren’t going to encourage our students to evaluate critically, think creatively, and interact with the world around them. Students can do these things at so very many of the 3000+ institutions of higher learning in this country, not only the ones that some have objectively judged to be the very best.
The students who are often best prepared for college are the ones who have found their interests and pursued them. These are the students with a passion that know from the start the topic of their college essay. They are the students who, no matter how successful they are from our societal standards, have found the ways to make themselves happy. Some of them will gain admission to Harvard, and many will spend engaging years pursuing their college degrees elsewhere. My hope for all of them is the sleep necessary to process all that they are learning in and out of the classroom.