Protecting Kids’ Mental Health during College Admissions

Protecting Kids’ Mental Health during College Admissions

Protecting Kids’ Mental Health during College Admissions

Celeste and Danieele

While William Deresiewicz was teaching English at Yale, he was struck by how many of his students seemed to be just going through the motions in class. These were supposedly some of the brightest, most ambitious, highest-potential students in the country, and they were sleepwalking.

In America, a brand-name college degree is generally considered proof that you’ve got something going for you. It’s supposed to open doors. It often does. But to attend one, you have to get in, and that process has trade-offs. In order to be offered admission to an elite university in the United States, most students will have to spend years of their childhood and adolescence collecting gold stars and jumping through hoops in order to be the kind of student that kind of university might want to admit. It’s not atypical for high school students with privilege to schedule themselves to the extreme with AP classes, test prep courses, extracurriculars, philanthropy work, and internships. In the past few decades, the process has only gotten more intense.

That habit of hoop-jumping often doesn’t go away after high school, Deresiewicz says. It also might be making kids miserable in ways that don’t go away either. In his research on how the college admissions process is affecting students, he found that young people who are taught to chase prestige are overwhelmingly struggling with stress, lack of purpose, and poor mental health—a pattern that often persists throughout their lives. In 2015, he published his findings in his revelatory book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. The book struck a chord: While it wasn’t without its critics, many self-diagnosed prestige-chasers wrote to Deresiewicz that they felt seen for the first time, and parent groups around the country invited him to speak on how they could help protect their kids’ happiness and well-being.

Deresiewicz is the first to admit he’s better at diagnosing problems than finding answers. He doesn’t know if colleges will ever realign their admissions processes away from their current intensity. And he acknowledges that this is only one part of a much larger conversation around wealth and privilege. But he does think parents can make a difference for their kids if they are willing to see the problem.

A Q&A with William Deresiewicz

What does the college admissions landscape look like now? How is it affecting students?

Admissions to elite colleges has become, in many cases, the thing that governs the lives of young people, clearly throughout the upper middle class but in much of the rest of the society as well. It shapes the way students’ lives look from as early as junior high school, if not quite a bit earlier. Parents put their kids through this because they think it’s good for their kid. They think it’s going to open up the world for them. And there are understandable reasons to think that.

The problem is that the admissions system itself has gotten so confusing and extreme that in the course of giving your kid a better chance to get into an elite college, it’s all probably also making them miserable, anxious, and stressed. The pressure robs them of much of what is fun and joyful about being a kid and a teenager and also a lot of what’s necessary psychologically and socially for them to develop into happy, healthy adults. They’re missing out on what’s ultimately going to be good not only for them but also for the people around them over the course of their lives.

How do you see this intense focus on college admissions affect high school education?

One of the things I’ve heard from teachers consistently is that the pressure on students to perform for the college admissions process diminishes the value of their high school education.

I remember a math teacher telling me that. Math teachers tend to believe that math is not a chore but can be fun and beautiful and deeply satisfying, and they’re working with kids that they know are smart and motivated and naturally curious. But what they’re seeing over and over is that these kids don’t have the time to enjoy learning. Because in order to succeed in terms of college admissions, they have to get the perfect grade in every class, which means they have to see their classes in purely instrumental terms. They end up multitasking; I hear about kids doing homework for one class while they’re in another class. They don’t have the time to focus on one thing and enjoy it deeply. They miss out on that educational experience.

How can parents best navigate their child’s college admissions process, keeping their kids’ well-being in mind?

First, parents have to understand that an elite college education is not a golden ticket to success and happiness. The world is full of all kinds of possibilities. If your kid is growing up in one of these upper middle class communities where there are robust resources for getting into college and for building a good future, they’re already in a really privileged position.

Then it’s giving your kid the message that they’re not a failure if they don’t get into Harvard, that where they go to college is not what you prioritize, and that it’s okay if they don’t get perfect grades. And that ethos has to be practiced: It’s not just saying it’s okay if they don’t get perfect grades; it’s also actually being okay with it if they get a grade that’s not perfect. Or being okay with it if they tell you, “I don’t care that much about math, so I’m not going to study as hard because I’d rather to play guitar or spend time with my friends or do this other extracurricular activity that’s meaningful to me.”

That’s the problem: It’s usually just talk. Kids see through it. Madeline Levine, a psychologist in the Bay Area, has been talking about this for years. She wrote The Price of Privilege, in which she talks about clients—adolescents who come in for therapy and with their parents—where the parents said to their kid, “We just want you to do your best. And we just want you to be happy.” And the kids just roll their eyes because they know that it’s not true—that’s not actually what their parents want.

That’s why this is such an intractable problem. Families want to have it both ways. They don’t want the negative effects of this pressure on their kids, but much of the time they’re not willing to grasp the nettle and do what it’s going to take to change their approach. It’s as if they have their fingers crossed behind their back. They want their kid to be happy, but they also want them to get into Harvard, and they think they can do both. Very few kids can do both.

What are the financial realities of pursuing elite colleges?

The generous financial aid packages that elite universities are able to offer are definitely one reason that families aspire to send their kids to one. However, the chances that any given student will get one of those packages (in other words, the chances that they’ll get into those schools) are relatively small. Putting them in a favorable position to get in can cost a lot of money, too: music lessons, youth sports leagues, tutors and consultants, tuition at a private school or housing costs in the kind of community that has excellent public schools—and all that with no guarantee that they will get in.

It’s no surprise that most of the students at elite colleges come from affluent families: upper middle class and rich. More than three dozen colleges, including most of the Ivy League, have more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. Even taking students from the second-highest quintile of the income distribution (not the top 20 percent but the next 20 percent—in other words, the middle class), less than 3 percent go to elite schools (as opposed to about 25 percent of students from the top 1 percent).

So sure, that’s the dream: Get into a top school and go for free or nearly free. But for the vast majority of families, it’s just a dream.

What does it look like for students to pursue higher education in a way that’s meaningful to them?

Many parents have come to believe that if your kid doesn’t go to one of like twelve colleges, then life is over. Many kids come to believe this themselves. And in many related ways, our higher education system is deeply screwed up. Most of the students I encountered while I was teaching at Yale were very hardworking, earnest, smart, and high-achieving. But it was like their college experience wasn’t part of them—it was like they were being processed through a machine, or they were on a conveyor belt taking them from station to station. They just wanted to be “successful” in a very abstract way, and they didn’t necessarily know what that meant to them. They didn’t see college as a project of their own, and they would go through their classes for grades—just as they were taught to do in high school—so they could come out the other side with a good track record.

What I noticed about the few students who seemed really alive to their education was that they, consciously or not, understood their college education as part of their own project. They were there for a reason, whether they had decided that reason in high school or found it once they got there.

While there are certainly flaws, we have a strong higher education system in this country. One of the reasons it’s strongest is because there are all kinds of different schools that fit all kinds of different students. When parents start to think about where their kids might go to college, they need to educate themselves about the full range of these options. There are so many good schools if by “good” we don’t mean “ranked in the top ten in US News” but instead we mean places where young people can thrive, find themselves, and get a meaningful education.

How do opportunities after college fit into that way of thinking?

The question is: Do you want your child to maximize income at the cost of minimizing happiness, or are you going to encourage them to take a chance to live their life—even if it comes at the cost of money or status?

There are three professions that correspond with the highest levels of unhappiness, as measured by things like substance abuse, depression, and divorce. Those are lawyers, doctors, and bankers. I recognize there’s a trade-off: Law, medicine, and finance pay a lot of money. They’re highly prestigious occupations. They’re often fields that parents want their children to go into. While there are certainly people who thrive in those jobs, the fields themselves are filled with unhappy people.

There are so many good courses of study. Don’t count out liberal arts: Many studies have shown that liberal arts degrees are actually very useful in the job market. They equip you with critical thinking skills, which tend to become more valuable over time. It’s a highly valuable use of an education, and if that’s what your child is passionate about, it might give them a chance to love what they do.

Kids can pursue their passion, whatever that is, and do well in the world. It’s a little crazy that we would think they can’t. That’s what college is supposed to be for: Whether they’re into science or art or the humanities or politics, they can figure out what they love and how they can build that purpose into their lives. That is something that college should and can and does serve, if you let it.

How are these decisions different for lower-income families?

Of course the situation is different for children from lower-income backgrounds going into elite colleges. For them, the pressure to succeed isn’t typically an issue of parental narcissism. It’s more often about potentially lifting up their whole family. That alone may be enough to provide a sense of purpose. At the same time, postgraduate options for those students are bound to be more limited, since they don’t have wealthy parents to float them through their twenties while they try to make it in a poorly paid, professionally uncertain field like publishing, journalism, the arts, or academia. And that’s going to put a lot of pressure on the major they choose in college.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should simply grit their teeth and study STEM if that’s not what they want to do. I’ve heard from a number of young people from lower-income backgrounds that that’s the message they received, and it made them miserable until they decided to give themselves permission to study what they really wanted—English or political science or whatever. And that now they are having fulfilling careers doing meaningful work.

The pressures are different and greater for students who didn’t grow up with money. But that doesn’t mean they should let anybody scare them into giving up their freedom to try to do what they really want. The choice should ultimately be theirs and theirs alone.

William Deresiewicz is the author of the New York Times bestseller Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Before becoming a full-time author, Deresiewicz spent a decade teaching English at Yale University, and he has held visiting positions at the University of San Diego, Bard, Scripps, and Claremont McKenna. He is also the author of A Jane Austen Education and, most recently, The Death of the Artist.

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