Admissions Anxiety: It’s Not Just a Problem For Students

Posted | by Madeline Levine | Posted in Courageous Parenting

It’s early admissions time and parents across the nation are teetering on the edge of a full-fledged nail-chewing, staring-at-the-ceiling-all-night anxiety attack. Yes, you read that right. Parents. While college-bound high school seniors surely care where they’ll receive their higher education, it’s their Moms and Dads who really suffer.

There’s not just one reason why parents get so worked up over college admissions. Typically, it’s a mix of several complex reasons. Part of it is our terrible economy: parents are genuinely worried that if their kids don’t graduate from a prestigious school they’ll surely end up back in their old room four or five years from now sending out resume after unanswered resume.

But that’s not the only reason. Reluctant as we may be to admit it, parental peer pressure plays a big role as well. Think about all the college bumper stickers you see on parents’ cars. Ever notice the shortage of community college logos? That’s because these bumper stickers are status symbols, like carrying the right purse or driving the right SUV. They’re part of our identity as “good parents.”

Unfortunately, kids are all too aware of our desire for college bragging rights. They may either strive to please us by getting into a prestigious school—sometimes to no avail—or they may throw their hands up and resign themselves to being a disappointment. (Need I point out that neither of these responses is healthy?)

To complicate matters further, our preoccupation with college is often a cover for facing the loss of our child. We obsess about the school instead of thinking about the empty room. Kids, too, can become difficult during this period of time. It’s often their way of easing the transition for themselves and for their parents.

So what can you as a parent do to relieve the pressure on your high school student (and put your own mind at ease) around the issue of college admissions? Understanding the psychological basis of your own anxiety may help. Beyond that, though, there are two sets of advice I like to give, depending on the age of your student.

IF YOU’RE A PARENT OF A STUDENT GETTING READY TO APPLY TO COLLEGE:

Realize that it’s not really about the school. It’s about the kid. Especially among upper middle class and affluent parents, there’s a strong belief that going to a top-tier college—especially one in the Ivy League—will provide unimaginable advantages in the professional world. This belief spawns an overwhelming frenzy of tutoring classes, ancillary “educational enrichment,” test prep, and more, all to help their offspring become “ideal candidates.” While going to a top-tier school may certainly offer great benefits for the right child, it’s certainly not the be-all, end-all. A famous study by Dale and Krueger compared students who attended prestigious universities to others who were accepted, but who chose to attend different, less prestigious schools. Twenty years later, researchers found no difference in job advancement or income level between the two groups (with the exception of inner city kids). The study illustrated the fact that it is primarily the student, not the school, that is responsible for success.

Here’s my point: no school ensures either success or failure. Both Bill Gates and Ted Kaczynski attended Harvard.

Focus more on whether the school is the right fit than whether it impresses the neighbors. It’s a match, not a prize. Kids report hating the pressure they feel when they are constantly asked, “Where are you applying?” They are fully aware of the judgments that will accompany their answers. Don’t feed into this problem. Instead, try questions like “Are you thinking about a big school or a smaller one? Urban or rural? Bookish or fun?”

The idea is to get kids thinking about the realities of college life and focus on the fact that it is a time of great personal development. As much will happen outside the classroom as in it. Prestigious schools are great for some kids, but they’re certainly not right for every kid. Whether a school is the right ‘fit’ may determine whether your child has a rewarding college experience or a miserable one.

IF YOU’RE A PARENT OF A YOUNGER HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT:

Ask yourself: are the rewards involved in acceptance to prestigious schools worth the risks? The stress of keeping up the grades, and the pace, necessary for acceptance to the Gotta-Get-In schools exacts a heavy price. Kids pressured to do so take AP courses that require studying four to six hours a night after a full day of school and often hours of athletic practice. They miss out on sleep, often relying on amphetamines they call “study aids.” Not only does this lifestyle wreak havoc on their physical health and interfere with their normal development, it deprives them of the joy of being teens.

The risk/reward ratio is what matters. When parents truly understand what kids have to give up in the pursuit of academic success, they may come to realize the price is just too high for some kids. The stress that results from pushing kids to excel academically, and expecting perfection from them, can contribute to escalating rates of emotional problems. The fact that 17 percent of students at Princeton and Cornell self-mutilate is, by itself, a pretty clear indication that the highest levels of academic achievement may not be a risk-free path.

Prize your child’s happiness over society’s notion of success. Here’s a radical thought: So what if your kid wants to be a kindergarten teacher instead of a doctor? So what if she wants to wait tables during the day and try out for Broadway plays at night? Too many parents believe there is only one definition of success—and it’s one that depends on an advanced degree from a prestigious school. This is simply not true.

Some people feel successful because of the jobs they have or the money they make, yes, but others feel successful because of their relationships with friends and families. Still others feel “true to themselves.” When we take a singular focus on academic achievement, we are telling kids there is only one path to success. When they buy into this belief they can’t possibly figure out who they are, what they value, or what kind of life is likely to be authentic, meaningful, and satisfying to them. They’re not living life; they’re giving a performance.

But back to the issue at hand: admissions anxiety. There’s enough normal stress during the transition from high school to college without ratcheting it up to a kind of hysteria.

In Finland, the world’s exemplar of education, all schools, including their universities are free. They strive for equity and not out of control competition and end up with kids who do much better on international testing. I know, I know: America is not likely to follow Finland’s lead any time soon. But at least parents can do their part to keep college in perspective, stay calm, and let their kids enjoy this exciting time in their lives.

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.