The problem is not the process. It's how we're guiding young adults.
We ask them the wrong questions. We show them that happiness is in a brand. That happiness is a checklist. This all relates to how the admissions process is executed and whether students have the opportunity--as they should--to grow from it, instead of suffering through it. I am a firm believer that the process actually helps the individual student identify, embrace and champion her strengths while preparing her for an independent, successful life ahead.
Again, if the process is done correctly. What a waste when it's not. Bruni mentions community service as have many others critical of the admissions process--saying in many ways it’s another box to check rendering it useless. Doing community service is something that as humans brings us joy. That’s why we teach it’s important as it also has immense positive consequences on those less fortunate. If you package it as a “have to do” it loses its appeal. So who’s packaging it like that? Don’t blame the colleges. They teach they value that in an applicant. It’s those who are guiding kids to check it off their list. Instead we need to teach kids why we expect they do it. And to let them figure out how to do it that comes genuinely to them. Teaching kids values that stink? Again, it’s all in how we teach students to go through a process. Sure, if you pay your way through you’re teaching young adults terrible values. But, if you teach them to go through this process showing them and telling them that the only important thing that matters is their ultimate happiness, this is one heck of a positive outcome that comes from this process. Have you ever guided a young adult to recognize true happiness within himself? To be genuine with herself? It’s a huge revelation. And when this process (US university admissions) is done “right” —and that’s why I do think it’s better than any other that exists in higher ed worldwide—the young adult learns to accept himself for who he is, champion his true strengths and recognizes that happiness is about his true fit. (And, true fit, let's be clear, is rarely one of the Ivies.) Not about society’s. Not about his parent’s. Not about anyone else but his own. I never advise, for example, that a student needs to do a “summer program” unless it is a very specific case. Expensive, more class time, reasons for doing one is most often "because she's doing one". Do something you want to do. Work. Try a new hobby. Learn something new that excites you. Make sure it’s a risk. Don’t follow the herd. Get out of the classroom. Don’t check a box. Don't pay for a summer experience. Admissions never said they wanted applicants to take summer classes on college campuses. That came about because colleges wanted to fill empty beds and classrooms. Cash cow. Somehow and somewhere parents thought this would help with applications. No one told them to stop. Common sense was lost. A kid feels her self worth is determined by a school name? You can’t tell me those are not values learned (or not) at home. Any parent I have worked with who didn’t preach brand-name schools, had discussions with her kids about what “true fit” means, learned and championed her child’s inner, unique strengths, and modelled that at home had very well adjusted kids who went on to name and not name schools and are thriving. Give young adults a bit more credit. They want this “unambiguous path to success” because we teach them that’s how life works. We ask: “Where do you want to go to college?” “What do you want to be?” Then we give them a checklist. Wrong questions. Ask young adults what drives them. What inspires them. What they would do with free time if they could. This is teaching young adults we value them for who they are, and can support them to be a success genuinely and following what will make them truly happy. And, that everyone's path is truly unique. Help young adults look within. They can do this. But they need our support and unconditional guidance. Yet we are complicit when we guide them to seek genuine discovery about themselves and turn it into a checklist. When we don’t educate parents about name brand hype and what that truly means in practice. We are the problem. Not the system. Not the kids.