Teens, Mental Health and College Applications

As college advisors, we focus on reducing the stress of the college application process.  We help students look at the wide variety of colleges out there (there are 2,200 four-year colleges in the U.S. – and many of them – beyond just the top ranked ones – provide an excellent educational experience for students!).  Parents have a great deal of influence on how their children approach their high school experience and their college search.  Focusing on just a few “name” schools, for example, sends the message to students that not getting into one of those colleges represents failure.  This causes stress and angst.

We’ve seen a number of articles recently that highlight teen stress – both from the parents’ and the students’ perspectives.  We’ve collected and curated them here – click the links for as many as you have the time and interest to read.

These articles were written by students, mostly discussing the stress they have felt in high school, as they approach college applications:

The student in this article lives in the high-pressure Northern Virginia suburbs.  He talks about having his school counselor foist a courseload of six AP classes on him, and says that his friends are “miserable, pessimistic and petrified about their future.”  He directly lays the blame for his feelings of stress on the adults in his life, pushing too hard.

stressThe student in this piece talks about the stress of the college application process itself, which seems to mask her fear about the unknown – going away next year.  Everything in her life will change!  And she also expresses frustration that in submitting college applications, she is being reduced to just data points, diminishing her individuality: “…let’s face it, I’m a number.  I’m a GPA, an SAT or ACT score.  I’m a quantifiable entity.  Plug me into an algorithm to determine my future.  It sucks.  There’s so much more to me.  I’m a multi-layered unquantifiable badass collection of atoms that is one of a kind.”  We often see students frustrated by this as they submit their applications into the ether – not knowing who will read them and who will judge them.

Finally, the student in this article achieved what everyone considers to be the top high school accomplishment:  she was admitted to an Ivy League university.  She talks, though, about feeling overwhelmed and inadequate at her Ivy League school, where the “incessant competition” is pervasive and has become a burden for everyone she knows.  She notes that her parents did not push her to achieve, but simply absorbed their praise for her good grades and pushed herself to constantly do better as a means to achieve them.  “It’s not about lowering your expectations,” she says, “it’s about tempering them with a knowledge of your child,” checking to see if they are pushing themselves too hard to win your praise.

These articles are written from the parents’ perspective:

This New York Times opinion piece talks about a study conducted by a pediatrician at St. Louis University Hospital, which uncovered symptoms of stress and anxiety in children as young as 6.  The article also references other studies by the American Psychological Association and the Centers for Disease Control.  The level of stress in teens is at nearly epidemic levels.  The author recommends homework limits and additional advisory time for students in school.

This Boston Globe article references a report issued last fall called “Turning the Tide,” in which Harvard’s Graduate School of Education recommended that highly selective colleges focus more on kindness and student contributions to community in the admission process.  She also recommends that parents take an active role in reducing stress by downplaying the importance of the college outcome.  “It’s not easy, but parents should pull back to let children have more balanced lives, experience the joy of discovering their own passions, and make their own choices about colleges.”

This post from the New York Times’ Parenting blog reminds parents to help students explore, without overscheduling them in a breathless search to find their passion.  Similar to the article above, this author says that children can see when their parents are living vicariously through their success, and feel the pressure to continue to improve, even if it’s not something they truly enjoy.

The bottom line:  it’s not hard to find news articles from a variety of outlets across the country that talk about teen stress and mental health, and their connection with the college application process.  We work with teens and see their fear, angst and concern daily.  We truly believe that everyone has a role to play in reducing this growing problem, but it takes effort and awareness of the messages you are sending as a parent, which may or may not match the message your teenager receives.

If you have questions about how we can help reduce your teenager’s stress when it comes to his/her college search and application process, please get in touch!

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