Can you growth-mindset your way into college?

As teachers and parents, we want our teenagers to try new things, challenge themselves and learn resilience from failure.

We don’t want them to obsess about grades, suffer anxiety or give up when a task is too hard.

But how do any of these goals fit with the insanely competitive culture around college applications? Are we doing enough to counteract it?

A few weeks ago, my Psych students had an open discussion about Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck’s article “The Effort Effect,” which explains the growth mindset. According to Dweck, we need to look at failure as information and use it to change our effort. She says people with a fixed mindset are so set on proving themselves “smart” or “talented” that they refuse to take on challenges and grow, and they lose out in the long run.

My students wanted to believe her, but they found it really really hard. It just didn’t fit their reality.

“You can’t just growth-mindset your way into the Olympics,” one student said.

Others pointed out that a college application is the ultimate fixed statement of your accomplishments — test scores and letter grades — and it doesn’t allow you room to fail and learn from it.

“College puts an emphasis on a fixed mindset,” one said. “You can’t try things because you’re scared not to get into college.”

In the last few moments of the discussion, one of my students made a really astute observation. Her peers, she noticed, were using college as an excuse to keep a fixed mindset. If a college rejects you, then learn from that, she said. That’s the growth mindset.

Her point was: It’s not up to the college — or the world — to give you permission to fail and learn from it. It’s up to you. You need to be courageous enough to stand up to the forces pressuring you to be perfect and say ‘No, I’m not, but I’m learning.’

It was a pretty remarkable insight for an 18 year old. But it’s hard for most teenagers to take that stand without our support, and we’re not sending them a clear message.

In fact, we send kids mixed messages about mindset all the time. Challenge yourself, but still get As. Get enough sleep, but get your homework done. Pursue whatever interests you, but make you sure you make money.

During the discussion, many students said they hear one message loud and clear:  Go to college, get a good job, and earn lots of money. There’s one path to success, and you get one chance to do it right.

That’s why they are terrified of making a mistake. It will only get worse when they go to college and know they are spending money — in some cases, lots of money — to take classes. They’ll be even less likely to try something that might not work.

In this season of college rejections, decisions and stress, we need to make sure teenagers understand there are many paths to success and many ways to recover from mistakes, rejection and even failure.

Let’s try to help them realize that learning really is the most important goal.