College Application Stress and The Race to Nowhere

Last week, The Today Show, did a piece on the documentary “Race to Nowhere.”   The film, started by a mother who was concerned by the pressures her own children were facing, highlights what high school students go through in order to prepare for the college application process.

It is a frequent conversation around our office.  Too often students are “freaking out” about not getting a certain grade or not being able to take all the AP courses they feel they need due to scheduling conflicts.  Not only are students feeling the pressure, some are cracking under it.

In addition to over working themselves to prepare for the college application process, students are having a difficult time waiting for their final decision letters.   Was my essay good enough?  Could I have taken the SATs one more time?  What if I had an A in that class instead of a B?  It can be overwhelming.

For my prospective, it is difficult to say what will stop the college application frenzy.  It is an epidemic that is affecting thousands of students and their families.  While there may not be a way to slow things down, there are some things parents and educators can do to help students deal with the pressure.

The first things students need to keep in mind is that they should have a balanced college list.  Having some realistic schools that they are likely to get into is very important.  It is also a bonus when a student can apply early action to a likely school since receiving at least one acceptance letter in December can take some of the pressure off.  As a consultant, I work with my students and their parents to come up with a balanced list by introducing them to schools they may not have heard of or ever considered applying to.  Parents can help students by keeping an open mind.  Even if you think your son or daughter can get into Harvard, it is still a good idea to have a back up plan, just in case.

Another important point, that was also made by a student in The Today Show piece, is that students need to remember to learn for the sake of learning.  I love that the student interviewed pointed that out.  So many times, students are taking classes because they feel like they have to, not because they want to.  Yes it is important to take a challenging curriculum, but it is more important to be realistic about what you can handle. Parents can help students set realistic expectations about class schedules by encouraging them to really think about how much work will go into each class.  Sit down with the student and map out what their daily routine may be with the proposed class schedule.  Ask them to talk to older students who have taken all of the classes they are considering.  Maybe one less AP is not such a bad idea.

There is a lot to think about with the college application process.  I recommend coming up with a plan of what the student should get accomplished each month leading up to college application deadlines.  This helps break up all of the tasks and prevents the student from trying to complete all of their applications at the last minute.  Parents can help by discussing with the student each month’s task ahead of time.  Gently encourage the student to get the task completed.

There is no doubt that event the most prepared student may get thrown off balance during the college application process.  Remember to take a deep breath and think about how this is not going to define the rest of your life.

Katherine Price

Educational Consultant


Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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  1. Katherine,

    This was such a great article. The key words that stand out are “be realistic”. Students should not put so much stress on themselves to get into the most prestigious Ivy League Schools. I like the idea of having a balanced list of schools in which to apply. That is also what I encourage my students to do as well.

    Thanks for the article,

  2. That’s the problem – coming up with the balanced list. Also, and probably more significant is a large number of us are responding to the inordinate pressure of the prestige schools overwhelming marketing. Why are their 30,000 students who applied to Brown last year? The admministration at places like Brown should be ashamed of themselves for entrapping students and their parents into thinking they should waste their time and money applying to Brown when there are so many other schools that can do the same thing for the student. How much profit is being realized by this overzealous marketing of schools. Are we really getting $200,000 worth of value out of even a prestige school?

  3. Hi, Cynthia.
    Your indignation and critique is good. But to be fair, Brown doesn’t really have to do much marketing. Brown can just sit back (with it’s membership in the Ivy League athletic association) and watch the applications roll in. The fact is that Brown cannot prove to you by any real measure that its educational services are better than any other university. But it is also the fact that most of the people of the planet think that Ivy League is somehow synonymous with “educational quality.” Brown is popular. It attracts top students from around the world. It has more applications than it has slots to fill. Thus it is selective. Brown doesn’t really create this reputation through some secret formula. In fact, Brown may be no better than University of Rhode Island (if we were to apply some sort of objective measure of educational quality–which no one every has…). But no matter. Everyone thinks Brown is better. So it must be? Right?

    [I should add that this response is likely to offend my brother, my sister, and two of my brothers-in-law–all of whom went to Brown. They loved the place, of course, but they have no way of proving that Brown is better than URI…and each of them would admit that uncomfortable fact.]

    Good luck to you!

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