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Finding Balance in Preparing for College

Leigh Anne SpraetzRecently, I attended the first Georgia showing of Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, a documentary about the stress-filled, anxiety-provoking lifestyles many students face in high school today, while focusing heavily on the impending future of college admissions. I urge you to watch the original trailer. My junior parents who viewed this at my opening seminar this year all stated that it was hard to watch. If it is hard to watch, you know it is harder to experience.

I increasingly use my counseling skills every year in my college counseling practice. I tell students that we aren’t going to base the whole senior year on the future outcome of the admissions decision of one single school, or in convincing them that an essay/application is “good enough – it’s time to let it go.” I make deals with parents regarding backing off and giving the grades, college discussions… a break so the student can be just that, a high school student, for a while. I know I talk out of both sides of my mouth. I am the one often emailing and calling these students to see where they are on the action item that was due to me last week. But I am also the one trying to ensure there is balance in this process.

I had read “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” by Denise Pope, Ph.D, and “The Price of Privilege” by Madeline Levine, Ph.D, both referenced in the film. I had heard both speak. I also had heard Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford University School of Education, give the opening address at an annual independent educational consultants conference. She spoke about the rise in college freshman anxiety and depression being documented by college counseling offices. She claimed that students were arriving to campus burned out, or arriving as a “shell of themselves”, not knowing who they were or what to do with free time, because their whole lives had been overscheduled, with every minute of their day already planned while being carted from one activity to the next.

Students have so much pressure today, and it saddens me to hear them comparing how late their study hours go into the night as early as 9th grade, as if it is a badge of honor. I routinely have students who stay up until 3:00 in the morning doing homework. What adults do you know who would do well after working seven hours straight, then going to a specialized activity for the next 3+ hours for vigorous practice or performance, and then coming home to hours of more work?

Studies continue to support the fact that many of the available jobs in the next decade will demand a stronger EQ (emotional intelligence) than IQ. We have to give our students time to socialize in person, to learn the give and take of relationships, and not only rely on facebooking or texting late at night in order to pursue this important task of adolescence development.

Much needs to be done to complete the college process well, but with proper planning it can be done while balancing a normal load in life. I tour 40-60 colleges per year and see many college applications each year. I know a great deal is asked of our students in order to add substance as they complete each section of the applications. However, I strongly believe that students need to take time to figure out who they are, and start to take an initial stance on who they want to become. They need to focus on what they enjoy and what they are interested in, and develop depth in these areas. This is not the time to add 10 more activities into their schedules because “it will look good on applications.” We have to strive to hold our students to high expectations, to expect them to do well in their jobs (school) but to do this in a rational, balanced manner, as we strive to do ourselves. That is, if we want to see well-adjusted, balanced happy young adults after reaching the all-important goal of obtaining a college degree.

If you want to learn more about the impact of stress and the related anxiety and depression many students face today because of their overwhelming, overloaded schedules, find a way to see the movie “Race to Nowhere” or read the above books.

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