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Why the university admissions process is such a problem

Mutter the words “university” and “admissions” and you’ll feel stress around you—verbal, visceral, corporeal, mental. Have you ever seen a student or a parent get really excited about the process? That’s the problem: because they should. And, that’s where we have—as a society—to take responsibility: for both what it does to our students and families currently and how we need to change it.

The actual “college admissions process” itself—sometimes taking students and families years to go through—is now seen as a pandemic not just in our society but globally, affecting young adults so deeply we are now reading about teen depression, suicide and anxiety regularly. What’s going on and how can we change both the causes and the effects?

Rankings do harm, not good.

Human beings, we love any sort of ranking; it helps us deduce the subjective and complex into a clean, neat and tidy package. Yet, does a top ranking guarantee happiness for the student? A great career? Success? Developing a network for a lifetime? No. Yet, society still embraces rankings. And to the detriment of our students. This is the quick-and-easy approach to guiding our young adults to their next stage in life and is false. Rankings mean nothing to a student’s success and happiness. Let’s help them understand this.

Yet, society still embraces rankings. I asked one of my juniors the other day why he didn’t like X university; I had put it on his Long List of universities to research as I thought it would be a great fit. “Doesn’t have a good ranking”, was his response. I asked which ranking he referred to and did he understand the metrics of the ranking before taking his conclusion. He couldn’t remember the ranking…and the metrics question got me a dear-in-headlights look.

We have failed young adults (and their parents) with this, folks. Pure and simple.

Mental health.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to connect the rising rates of suicide, depression, isolationism and anxiety to the university admissions process. Sure there are other factors in the mix; but the admissions process is big business and that “bigness” infiltrates the lives of young adults from very young. “Where do you want to go to college?”, asks an elder of a 12 year old. Like he would know. Like he should know. Yet we ask. Shame on us. A better question would be, “What do you enjoy doing?” or “Tell me about yourself.” I find my students are rarely asked these questions. And, when they are, they struggle at first to answer them. Yet these are the very questions whose answers would lead to a more genuine, realistic and “fit-based” approach to the whole “where do you want to go to university?” question.

Not the real you.

As students begin to “enter” into the process—thinking about extracurriculars, community service, which courses to take, getting a job—their development runs the risk of regression, unless they have a mentor, parent or teacher who can catch them before they do. Students think they need to be someone else for college applications. Rigorous courses. Awards. Winning at their sport. Internship. Again, we have it backwards. As the student develops through secondary school we should be continually asking the questions, “What do you enjoy?” “What would be a risk for you?” “What’s your limit?” “What are you afraid of trying only because you think you’ll fail?” “What will make you happy?” and helping them to develop a better sense of self as they choose the different activities, courses, jobs that are an option to them and aligned with who they are.

Don’t start with telling them how they should be. Start with learning who they are. (And for anyone who is in admissions would know, this ultimately leads to a more powerful application in the end—the student will embrace who she is and understand better what “fit” actually means being able to articulate that more effectively.) It took me a full year with a student for him to come around and accept the fact that he wasn’t competitive by nature (“I want a lot of competition at university!”), was intimidated by intensity in the classroom (“I need a lot of rigour!”) and wanted a “big name university”. He came to see me over the holiday on break from his small liberal arts college in Michigan. He’s a flourishing young man, confident, articulate and happier than I have ever seen him before.

What can we do?

A lot of people are already doing a lot of important things. From to the recent publication by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education “Turning the Tide” and the launch by some of the most experienced educational leaders in the US of the Institute on Character and Admission, these action steps are helping. But, because the university admissions process is not isolated—it permeates through the entire career of a high school student--we need it to come from within society, as well, and not just from those in admissions, in order for it to have an impact on the health and wellbeing of young adults. A few ways to make that happen:

Start self-assessment right away.

High schools can implement simple self-assessment workshops starting from grade 9 and progressing through to senior year helping students not only figure out who they are but to also learn to embrace their uniqueness. We are telling you to be who you are and that that in and of itself is outstanding. Parents should be involved in this—whether its with bi-annual seminars given in the evening or keeping them in check with what’s going on and why—to also give them the chance to learn about their own child and that their uniqueness is…greatness.

Knowledge is power.

Start teaching. High schools, this is where you come in. Start educating your community on life beyond high school—whether it be college or gap years or work or trade—with case studies and lots of time for feedback and Q&A from your parents and students. Help them to understand why rankings won’t help them. Help them to understand what “fit” really implies when we’re talking about not just college applications but also life in general. (We all know what it’s like to go to a job that first day knowing full well that this is not a great fit.)

Talk to young adults.

Ask them about themselves. Ask them their opinion. Ask them what motivates them. What doesn’t. Show them that you’re interested and also show them that there is no right answer, only the one that’s true to who they are. Encourage them to be genuine. Talk to them about happiness and what that means in life. Give them ideas for life choices, from post-high school years to careers to lifestyle choices. These human beings have been on the planet for some short 15, 16, 17, maybe 18 years! How would they have any idea what’s out there beyond? It’s our responsibility to show them and guide them.

This is all about incorporating the entire community in supporting our young adults. That’s not a new concept, but its elements have changed over the years and we’ve reached a tipping point. It’s no surprise that a course called Happiness is the most popular course ever offered at Yale. Young adults are seeking it, and they’re not feeling it. That should cause alarm. Let’s sound the bells.

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