It’s college decision season, so the internet is filled with chatter about the insanity of the current college application process. The main themes are anxiety and frustration.
Anxiety driven by the fear that nothing short of a perfect GPA, multiple leadership positions, a resume full of volunteering and a patent will ensure college admission and future success.
Frustration in response to the reality that a hard-working teen can take every AP class, get a perfect ACT score, play cello and star on the basketball team and still not get into Harvard — or even a top-ranked state university.
A lot of commentators (for example, this blog from Thera-Mom) are pushing back against the rat race of college admissions and the high-achievement culture, saying it’s a mania, that it sends the wrong message, and that neither your high school GPA nor what college you attend really matters in the end.
The message is: Have more fun, relax, go to more school dances — and stop worrying so much about college.
I’ll be honest — I’m struggling with that response.
My own kids went through this process just a few short years ago — one ending up at a competitive private school, the other at a major public university — and I watch dozens of students navigate it every year, so I get it. The admissions process for elite schools is excruciating, and it creates widespread disappointment and disillusionment.
But have we really failed our kids by asking them to aim high?
Are we really working them too hard in high school?
And is it really true that none of this matters?
I think asking kids to aim high — to take challenging classes and work hard in them — is generally a good thing. We still have far more teenagers in the U.S. who are under-challenged in high school than those who are over-challenged. (The average American high school student does less than one hour of homework per night.)
We still demand much higher commitment from our students for their sports teams than their academics.
And most of those who challenge themselves academically, even if it doesn’t get them into Harvard, will reap lifelong benefits from their effort.
I have 70 freshmen enrolled in AP Macroeconomics right now, and I’m sure many people would consider that insane. Why work 14- and 15-year-olds that hard? Why push them to learn something they could perfectly well wait to study as 18- or 19-year-olds?
If you could visit my classes, you’d see 70 freshmen thriving, learning, talking about important issues — and finding meaning in their work. (And making Keynesian and Classical paper hats for fun.)
Many Macro students come back and tell me later that this class taught them how to study, taught them how to learn. For too many, it’s the first time they have ever been challenged in their K-12 education. Most value the experience, and not just for their resumes.
But what about the pressure they put on themselves to get into an elite school?
This is where the problem lies. The misguided belief that following a specific recipe or formula will get you into the “best” college. This is what we need to address. Of these 70 Macro students, maybe a handful will get into a highly selective college. Most won’t.
The truth is that every year, more and more highly qualified students are applying for college. (Ask anyone who teaches at a second-tier college, and they’ll tell you the quality of their student body is better than ever. It’s a spillover effect.)
There are just more amazing students than there is space at a few prestigious colleges. So what do we, as educators and parents, do?
I don’t think the answer is to tell our teenagers that none of this matters.
In fact, I think it’s disingenuous to say “it doesn’t matter if you go to Stanford” — and students pick up on that. There are advantages to attending a highly ranked college, like learning from incredible faculty members who are leaders in their fields. Getting recruited by firms like Google. Having roommates with incredible life experiences.
But getting into one of those colleges is about as likely as making it into the NFL or winning a free trip to Europe. Even if you’re highly qualified, it’s just not that likely. It’s not you — it’s them. And it’s not the end of the road.
We need to make sure kids know that and don’t make too much of the expected rejection.
Even more importantly, we need to change the narrative around hard work, discipline, and tenacity in high school.
We need to talk more about why building your knowledge and skills — your human capital — is inherently important, not just as a means to an end.
We need to make sure that when our students are working hard, they are doing work that matters to them and feels meaningful, not just as a letter grade on a transcript.
Hard work probably won’t get you into Harvard, that’s true. No one really knows what will. But hard work will take you a lot of great places in life, and that’s reason enough.
Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush