#NACACreads: College Prep and the Price of Perfection

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College-bound kids from across the globe are increasingly internalizing the same harmful message: Only excellence will do when it comes to grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and college admission.

But expecting across-the-board greatness is a “set-up,” clinical psychologist David Gleason told counselors and admission professionals on Tuesday.

“Trying to conform to these expectations, kids become depleted, feeling scared about their futures, and disillusioned by their inability to do it all,” Gleason tweeted during a #NACACreads discussion of his book, At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools.

The result?

“So many suffer intense anxiety and depression, manifested by eating disorders, substance abuse, self-injury, and suicide,” Gleason noted. “At What Cost? amplifies students’ cries: ‘Do you realize how hard this is?!’”

Counselors and admission professionals throughout the nation discussed how to address that unsettling trend during the hour-long #NACACreads chat.

Anna Coyne, a counselor at an Indiana high school, said her students are routinely overwhelmed, overworked, and overscheduled. And thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever for teens to compare their accomplishments (and missteps) to the images and updates shared by their peers.

“We are not giving our kids the freedom to be normal,” she tweeted.

Increasingly, educators, parents, and others ask kids to behave like adults far before they are developmentally prepared to do so. And we’re asking them to do it while sleep-deprived and scheduled to the hilt, noted Gleason, who has worked with students for over 20 years.

“Neuroscience incontrovertibly reveals that the frontal lobe, which controls attention and executive functioning, develops last, and not fully until the late 20s,” Gleason tweeted. And as stress surrounding the college admission process increases at competitive high schools, students are too often pushed to their limits.

Later school start times, more free time, and executive function instruction for ninth and 10th graders can help students prepare for college in healthier, more developmentally appropriate ways, Gleason said.

Counselors and admission officers can also push back against the myth that the only path to success is admission to a brand name university.

“We’ve got to stop the mentality that there are only a few paths to success,” tweeted Sara Tones, a high school counselor from Texas who participated in the chat. “There are plenty of colleges to go around.”

Read the chat transcript and learn more about #NACACreads.

Admitted writer/editor Mary Stegmeir welcomes additional comments and story ideas at mstegmeir@nacacnet.org.

2 thoughts on “#NACACreads: College Prep and the Price of Perfection”

  1. Great summary, Mary. Thank you! I was honored and delighted to be a guest author with NACAC, as college admissions counselors are in a unique position to help turn the tide on these critical issues for adolescents, whose minds are STILL DEVELOPING while they try to comply with overwhelming demands imposed on them by the adults in their lives. Thank you, NACAC, for joining the mission to reverse this destructive trend.

  2. I have to say that ten years ago I cited test prep companies as the #1 place where parents learn about education requirements for getting into college. At the time, and now that the issue has run away from us, I still think that educators have done a poor job in parent education for college prep. I spend more time in China talking about the difference between perfection and fascinating students than I do about talking about different campus cultures.
    Even at this late date, we educators on all levels. must become more innovative and convincing in describing the qualities of a student that make her or him stand out in the application pool.

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