Students in many schools are loading up their schedules with academics, sports, extracurricular activities, and volunteer work, with the ultimate goal of impressing college admissions officers at top colleges.
But some believe that while the competitive environment is driving achievement, engagement and community service, students are pursuing “success” for the wrong reasons, and it’s creating big problems.
Laurie Wolk, educator and author of “Girls Just Want to Have Likes,” recently penned a column for U.S. News & World Report about the dynamic she’s witnessed working with parents and kids to develop social and emotional skills, and how it’s taking a toll on students that’s not always obvious.
“Studies show that teens cite doing well in school and getting into a good college as a primary source of stress, and those same studies show that many parents aren’t recognizing this,” Wolk wrote.
“A drive to overachieve has many kids hyper-focused, worried and sleep-deprived. When kids don’t have the time to have fun, socialize, sleep or just chill out, that’s when things become unhealthy. For teens, a lack of sleep has been linked to depression and suicide.”
Wolk argues adults are likely “focusing too much on college acceptance rates as a measure of success rather than our kids’ actual happiness,” which prompts the questions: “Have our kids stopped doing things simply because they enjoy them? Are too many of their after-school activities influenced by their worries about getting into college rather than whether something is the right fit for them?”
Another important question: Are students helping those in their community to pad their college resumes, or because it’s the right thing to do?
James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, points out how encouraging youngsters to look beyond themselves can have a profound impact on their character, and on what they define as success.
In “The Tragedy of Moral Education in America,” Hunter wrote:
For parents and other adults, the task of ‘saving our children’ means, in large part, telling children what they are being saved for. The task of educating children means teaching them the larger designs that could give form and focus to their individual aspirations, so that they can come to understand not only how to be good but why …
Wolk contends that failing to help students find a deeper purpose can have significant consequences.
“If we don’t stop encouraging kids to look for fulfillment and success in admission to a prestigious university, they may arrive at the end goal and find it wasn’t worth it,” Wolk wrote. “Or worse, they may resent all the valuable time they wasted pursuing it.”
Several universities understand the situation and are working with the Making Caring Common Project to incorporate measures of morality and character in the admissions process – the things that demonstrate a concern for others and the common good, authentic intellectual engagement and integrity and confidence.
“The new and enlightened way of evaluating our kids offers a glimmer of hope and the chance to get back to what matters most,” Wolk wrote. “If admissions offices start focusing on the meaningful, authentic and genuine aspects of a kid’s life before college, then maybe our kids can too.”
The Making Caring Common Project is an effort by the Harvard Graduate School of Education “that engages college admissions offices, high schools, parents and young people” to help the next generation develop a greater concern for others, increase equity and access for poor students, and reduce pressure of excessive achievement.
“More than 175 college admission offices, including all Ivy League colleges, have joined us in this effort,” according to project’s website. “We are now launching a nationwide initiative to advance these goals in high schools.”