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College Admissions Insanity: How to Calm the Student Frenzy

Even setting aside criminal charges that made headlines in 2019, the scramble by high school students to get into top colleges isn’t in their best interests, causing unnecessary stress that doesn’t fulfill their needs.

A laptop with the word "Admissions" in large print on its screen.
From a student, parent, teacher and societal perspective, the subject of college admissions is filled with false and contradictory information, and many students are letting college admissions become an unhealthy obsession that runs their lives. It puts students and families on tilt, big time. Operation Varsity Blues — the investigation into wealthy families getting their children into top colleges that led to actual jail time — was just a glimpse of the crazed “admissions industry” where money and influence talks and unethical behavior has gone unchecked. Students, along with many parents, distort their lives to enhance their ability to attend the college they think they must attend or else be considered a failure.

To be sure, there is a spectrum of applicants and their families — from the first in a disadvantaged family to even apply to college, to wealthy applicants from families with multi-generational college attendance including advanced degrees. Not all are obsessed and tailoring their lives to college admissions 24/7, but many of these elements affect all college-bound students.

My effort with every family and student I work with is to calm the waters and reduce the insanity, to take out of the college-admission process the factors that unnecessarily and destructively distort students’ lives.

This admissions insanity happens despite the fact that Pew Research Center says that a majority of U.S. colleges admit most students who apply. Too many benefit from the frenzy, from companies that will help write application essays to test prep companies and expensive counselors.

We know that not all applicants are on a level playing field, and that money often distorts the process. That inequity can be the subject for another article. But regardless of economic status, the college admissions game has taken its mental and emotional toll on the well-being of many high school students.

The toll takes many forms. Harvard calls it “burn out,” and its website posts a full New York Times article from 2000, “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” written by three Harvard faculty. I keep copies on my desk for every student, parent and educator to read. It chronicles the admissions insanity many of our precious children endure — from the cradle on, the often insane and destructive parental quest to get their children into the “best” college (which doesn’t exist) to guarantee them success in life. They think that if they falter at all in this process, their children will live lives of desperation and failure.

In that article, Harvard notes the fallout from this tragic and destructive process:

“Faced with the fast pace of growing up today, some students are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors. Counseling services of secondary schools and colleges have expanded in response to greatly increased demand. It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes,’ stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties - physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others - sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.”

This is bad, bad news, and things have gotten far worse in the more than 20 years since that article was written.

Former Stanford Dean of Freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims’ TED talk, “How to Raise Successful Kids – Without Over-Parenting,” says that by loading kids with high expectations and micromanaging their lives at every turn, parents aren’t actually helping. They make their children miserable by evaluating every minute of every day against the goal of getting into the best college, as though the only alternatives are hopelessness and desperation.

Why worry about getting into college? We know most students get into the colleges they apply to. Many colleges make matters worse by encouraging more and more students to apply for the same number of openings so they look more selective, and perhaps, therefore, more attractive.

The fact is that colleges are closing because they don’t have enough students. The pandemic made this worse, but Clay Christensen and Michael Horn’s 2013 prediction in the New York Times that at least 25 percent of colleges and universities would close, merge, or declare exigency is coming true. Nearly two dozen colleges and universities have closed nationwide since 2018, impacting 27 states.

One factor that should ease admissions anxiety is the “demographic cliff” — the declining birth rate and the decreasing number of college-age students. There will be room for all applicants! The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that after 2025, there will be fewer prospective high school graduates because of the declining birth rates during and since the Great Recession.

And I shock folks when I advise not taking the SAT or ACT, except for a very limited set of circumstances. I want students to have lives that aren’t dominated by continual SAT test prep, and they don’t need to take the SAT to get into many colleges. The good news is that the SAT and ACT are going away, with fewer and fewer colleges requiring them or even looking at the scores. The biggest news on this front was the University of California system phasing them out. Check out to see the growing list (currently 1,540-plus) of accredited, four-year colleges and universities with ACT/SAT-optional testing policies for fall 2022 admissions.

Many high school students and their parents have misplaced fears and concerns about their future success because they haven’t read — or don’t believe — Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, or any of the other writings that demystify and debunk the college success myths. Another is Michael Horn’s Choosing College. Another is a white paper by Challenge Success called “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity,” which says “rankings are problematic,” “college selectivity is not a reliable predictor of student learning, job satisfaction, or well-being” and “engagement in college is more important than where you attend.”

What does it all mean? High school students should be able to chill and turn off the frenzy. They should be able to enjoy their current studies and their lives without jumping through meaningless college-entry hoops. There’s room in great colleges for everyone, and students can get in without distorting their lives 24/7. The college admissions process can be calm and sane and kept in perspective.

Finally, many students don’t understand that they should be looking at the right college for them, not a mythically high-ranked “select” college. Choosing a college, or deciding to go to college in the first place, is part of a larger goal of making sense of the world, deciding how one wants to live and what one wants to accomplish. They can live their own lives, instead of the lives they think they have to live to get into their dream school, and along the way find a college that fits their needs. In the end, isn’t that the only thing that matters?
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.