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Telling parents to 'just relax' on college admissions perpetuates a broken system

Telling parents to 'just relax' on college admissions perpetuates a broken system
A sign is seen at the entrance to a hall for a college test preparation class in Bethesda, Md. on Jan. 17, 2016. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

When the news of the college admissions scandal broke, I thought of one of my psychotherapy patients. She repeatedly brings up in our sessions that her father, a known writer, wrote her college essay and that she believes that’s what got her admitted to an Ivy League school. The remarkable part of her story is not that she didn’t write her own essay, but that “the cheating” (as she calls it) happened 40 years ago, yet it haunts her to this day.

In the wake of the recent arrests and plea deals, it may be easier to discern how parents do their children a disservice in “helping” them get into college. But when I take stock of all the anxious teens and parents I encounter at my kids’ school and coming through my therapy office, I wonder if we’re not all being done wrong by the admission process itself.

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The mother of one teenager, for instance, came to session feeling guilty that she hadn’t hired a tutor when her son asked for one in 9th grade. Worried about the cost, she felt at the time that he should first try to work through the tough material on his own — which he did. By the end of the school year he was back on track. But the temporary dip in her son’s grade freshman year affected his GPA enough to make it less likely that he would be admitted to the most competitive colleges. “They tell you that kids learn the most from failure, but the system does not allow for that,” the mother commented bitterly. “There is no box on the college application form where he can check that he had to figure it out by himself.”

By placing responsibility on parents to 'just relax' a bit, we’re letting a broken college admissions system perpetuate itself.


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Another family decided to forgo a private admissions counselor, wanting their daughter to have a sense of ownership over her college choice. The mother now wonders if it was worth the fights and nagging that ensued, and feels the experience negatively affected her relationship with the daughter. Both parents fear that things fell through the cracks and that their daughter might have ended up at a better college if she’d had professional guidance.

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I’ve also been asked to prescribe Adderall by young patients who are about to take the SATs. Prescribing is not within my scope of practice, I have to explain, and in any case, an assessment for learning disability is required. One teen patient became angry and resentful, arguing that “so many of my friends get time and a half” on their SAT or ACT exams because they have been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety or learning differences. “I’m anxious too, except my parents missed the boat by not having me diagnosed in time.”

Many parents have heard the whispers about doctors who, for a fee, will diagnose children with ADHD or anxiety disorder without even seeing them. True or not, the stories have a corrosive effect and everyone is harmed. Some children are deprived of the experience of mastering a test on their own, and others feel the system is so rigged that they lose motivation. The children who genuinely need extra time are viewed suspiciously. Most important, other children who need special accommodations might not get them because the system is overtaxed and has become geared toward parents who have the means to navigate it.

Parents in the midst of the college admission process are often counseled, “Don’t worry. Your child will get in where he/she is meant to get in,” or “There are many good colleges. Everyone gets in somewhere.” There may well be truth to this advice. But by placing responsibility on parents to “just relax” a bit, we’re letting a broken college admissions system perpetuate itself.

Blaming overzealous parents (or a few bribeable coaches) for the inequality in college admissions misses the point. Parents are warned that everything — grades, after-school activities, summer camps, internships, volunteer work, science fair awards — matters starting in 9th grade. This creates 3 1/2 years of college admissions anxiety. No wonder stress levels for teens and parents have been rising steadily for decades now.

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There is no single fix, but one small and feasible step might be to make time less of a factor in test-taking. The SAT and ACT currently favor the ability to work through a long list of problems at breakneck speed — but this skill is rarely useful or required in adulthood. Simply adding an hour to the SAT and ACT test periods would make the test less stressful for all students, reduce the advantages enjoyed by those with the resources to take multiple practice tests, and remove incentives for gaming the system or taking performance-enhancing drugs.

As a parent and a psychotherapist who has lived in the United States and Europe, I often feel envious of my European friends who cannot fathom the complexity and stress of the American college admission process. Yes, the United States is home to many of the best colleges and universities in the world, and we as a nation can justifiably be proud of that. But one does have to wonder whether the current emphasis on the single achievement of getting in comes at too high a cost to our collective mental health.

Anja Stadelmann Wright is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles, and a mother of two teens going through the college admission process.

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