We have molded our entire education system to fit the goal of elite college admissions. The result? We’re preventing students from learning the very skills they need to be successful and fulfilled in life.
Across the country, millions of high school seniors spent the past month opening their last college admissions envelopes, hoping to be accepted into the schools of their choosing. Many have spent the last several years of their lives agonizing over their choice of courses and activities, and taking (and retaking) SAT exams, in hopes of boosting their chances of admission.
And yet, as spring turns to summer, millions of college-bound students will not have gotten into their first-choice colleges. In 2017, college acceptance rates at elite Ivy League schools dropped as low as 4.65 percent for the first time in history. Students with “perfect” grades and SAT scores; students with transcripts heavy with AP courses; students who have filled their afternoons with extracurricular activities — many of these high-achievers were devastated to find out that despite all their efforts, they didn’t get in.
We have a huge contradiction in this country. For at least the last decade, our culture has communicated to children from day one, in messages both subtle and overt, that admission to a “good” college is necessary to navigating life as an adult. Our entire educational system has molded itself to the demands of elite college admissions, in fact — so much so that in many states, the SAT has become the high school exit exam, instead of the college entrance exam it was intended to be. Presented with the idea that college acceptance is a marker of achievement and self-worth, our children have molded themselves to the demands of elite college admissions, spending much of their high school careers focusing not on high school itself, but on “looking good” on a college application.
And yet, there is a tragic twist: It is nearly impossible to gain admission to an elite school, even for the most conventionally high-achieving student. Faced with rejection from a top school, many students see only bleakness — their efforts and anxiety all amounting to nothing.
Most of us hope our kids will be able to survive and thrive independently as adults, which means finding their way to careers that are both financially and personally satisfying. Many of us also believe that a college degree is the best and most sure path to this personal and financial stability. And certainly, having a college degree does correlate with higher income and greater civic engagement, among other good things.
But what employers look for most are “soft skills” like creativity, critical thinking, sociability and passion — not high school GPA or SAT scores, and not a diploma from one of a handful of top schools. What kids need most, in terms of finding a good career, is not a Harvard degree, but a solid sense of self — their skills, passions and goals — and a work ethic that can propel them in the direction of their choosing.
As adults, we need to tell them this more: that it’s self-actualization, connectedness, drive and a love of learning that brings “success” in life and career, not the name on a college diploma. Whether we’re parents, teachers or school administrators, we can communicate this truth to students through our words and our actions. Here are some things we can do:
Fan the sparks of their passions: We can enthusiastically encourage kids to do what they love, and to explore what they are most curious about — be it skateboarding, artmaking or entrepreneurship. Kids need our unconditional validation, and their passions, whatever they may be, might develop into fulfilling careers down the road. We can make time for their interests both in and outside of school: Are there ways to shape more school assignments to suit individual student interests? On some evenings, is an hour of comic book reading more important than an extra hour of studying?
Fan the sparks of OUR passions: We can model curiosity and passion for the things we love to do. When we share with kids what we’re learning about or interested in, we communicate to them that life isn’t a race, and that learning doesn’t end with college, or even with a career. We are always changing and developing. Learning can be lifelong. Personal fulfilment can happen in all kinds of ways.
Change the culture: We can help shift the conversations around college applications in our own communities to reflect a healthier (and more realistic) picture of success after high school. We can book a spring speaker or screen a film for juniors and seniors that celebrates human individuality and the myriad paths to success and fulfillment. As teachers and administrators, we can discuss college applications with students in ways that help alleviate pressure. And as parents, we can be fearless in sharing with other parents that we aren’t worried about our child’s applications, or their future at large (bonus: saying it out loud can help make it real!).
Change the systems: We can join the many organizations and movements working to make college admissions and standardized testing fairer for all students. FairTest works to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair and educationally beneficial; the site includes a searchable database of more than 1,000 4-year “test optional” colleges. We can organize convenings of our school communities to talk about what we value most in education, and how we can stay true to those values in spite of the pressures of test scores and college admissions. Film screenings are a great way to bring people together and keep the conversations going. If you’d like our help in organizing a series of events in your community, write or call anytime.
If we are willing to put aside our fear, we can harness immense power to change the status quo, helping kids transition into adulthood with confidence and excitement. And we can reclaim spring from the clutches of the nail-biting, hand-wringing pressure to “get in” — making it a time of glee and ease, as it should be.