Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Protect the Holiday Dinner…Just Say ‘No’ to College Talk

Reading my Sunday New York Times is one of my favorite pastimes. I wake up early on a Sunday, go for a run, eat a big brunch, and snuggle up with my dog and my paper. However, as the leaves have now fallen and the holiday approach, I often tread cautiously around my NYTimes, and all of my other favorite news sources, because inevitably, my weekend retreat from work becomes a nightmare:

  • “How to win the College Scholarship Game” 
  • “Is College Worth It?”
  • “Don’t send your kids to the Ivy League”
  • “Building a better ranking system”
  • “Harvard Schmarvard” 
These titles are just a small sample of headlines that jump out of The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Washington Post, New Republic, The New York Times, The Huffington Post and others.

I have seen a direct correlation between the time of year I begin to dread my morning routine and the level of stress among our students. Applying to college was stressful when I was in high school long before our current students were born. A holiday dinner with extended family wouldn’t have been complete without talk of where I was applying to school and whether I planned to follow in the footsteps of generations before me and go to their alma mater. Thanksgiving was no longer carefree and focused on compliments on my mother’s sweet potato casserole; it was about relatives grilling me about my future. The prevalence of college news in the media has only upped that level of awareness, questioning, and stress.

Parents feel this stress too, often out of a well-intentioned need to feel as though they are doing everything they can to offer the best for their child. I have heard parents say that all of their hopes rest on their child’s admission to college as if this defines them and their success as parents. Increasingly, I have read articles that describe college as parents’ ultimate “return on investment.”

According to a study published in the Journal of College Admission, the top stressors in the college
admission process are parents/peers, essays, and standardized tests. (Vultaggio and Friedfeld, 2013). Per this study, these stressors are the same across gender lines and socioeconomic status. However, there are some researchers who say that the pressure experienced by kids at independent schools is greater. At a recent conference I attended, Madeline Levine spoke about her book The Price of Privilege and how particularly in cultures of affluence, there is increased pressure to achieve. To help address these pressures, Levine and other colleagues from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, started “Challenge Success” a project designed to research and educate about alternative models of success for our kids that will maximize child well-being. I encourage you to check out the website (challengesuccess.org) and learn more.

Another favorite grounding resource is the website for The Education Conservancy, whose flyer “We Admit…Guidance From Those Who Do” begins with the sentence, “Applying to college does not have to be overwhelming.” (accessed 10/27/14) These statements become mantras that I share with students throughout the fall. Finally, to address stressors around standardized testing, I highly recommend a visit to www.fairtest.org. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (Fairtest) is an organization that is committed to eliminating the misuse and flawed use of standardized tests and looking at better evaluation measures of students in the college admission process.

And so as we enter the holiday season, and families turn their attention from the roast and the pumpkin pie, to the sweet success of their child, please remember these resources and the following tips to help keep your stress at bay and your joy in Sunday mornings and holiday dinners:
  1. There are more stories in the news than the latest college rankings. Engage in a conversation about these.
  2. Focus your child’s search on fit – helping them identify who they are and where they can continue to grow, rather than focusing on only the names you know.
  3. Help protect your child from badgering relatives, relentless news coverage, and themselves. (You might practice with them, some polite ways to defer unwanted questioning from friends and neighbors.)
  4. Don’t frame college as the ultimate goal – College is actually just the beginning of what’s to come.
  5. Don’t try to control what is out of your control, but you can control your attitude, your openness, the time you have.
  6. Finally, a seasonal favorite from the NACAC Players: Don’t let your anxieties haunt you:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrazZSZIY54
Jennifer Ford
Director of Deans
Greensboro Day School 
Vultaggio and Friedfeld (2013). “Stressors in College Choice, Application and Decision Making”, National Association of College Admission Counseling Journal of College Admission, Number 221.