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The Shelf Life of a College Application

For many graduating, college-bound, high-school seniors, the stressful college test prep, search, application and admission process is about to take its final turn: May 1 is National College Decision Day. Hence, the shelf life of countless college applications is about to expire, the way of so many molding loaves of bread.

Ah, the journey one endures.

But it’s not only young people who bemoan this labyrinth. Even the well-meaning adults and educators who propagate the enduring disaster of this process seem to acknowledge something is wrong.

In fact, the January 2016 release of “Turning the Tide,” a report advanced by none other than the Harvard Graduate School of Education, representing colleges nationwide, articulated the excesses, and stark inadequacies, of the college admissions adventure. Intended to de-stress student applicants, the report’s recommendations address such things as standardized-test scores, which many colleges already treat as optional; advanced placement courses, which not every school offers; and a quality over quantity approach to extracurricular activity and service. The question now: “Has it gotten any better?”

One can only hope.

survey by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation identified school, including concerns about college, as a key adolescent stressor. In addition, the 2013 survey of stress by the American Psychological Association revealed that teens are experiencing levels of stress on par with, and in some cases exceeding, that of adults. During the school year, young people say that their stress levels surpass what even they believe to be healthy. The report also notes feelings of being overwhelmed, sad, depressed and tired.

As Sargunjot Kaur, a high-school student writer, explained, “It’s like a pressure cooker in here! No doubt, school is tough. For some, it’s the worry of being able to get enough credits to graduate high school, while for others it’s being able to get a 4.0 GPA and get into Stanford. No matter what our goals are, we all struggle with a tremendous amount of stress and pressure.”

Is it any wonder that many students show up at college already being treated for mood disorders? Indeed, 86 percent of college counseling center directors note a steady increase in the number of arriving students on psychiatric medication, according to a 2014 report from the National Survey of College Counseling Centers. The same report states that 94 percent of counseling directors say they’ve seen an increase of students with severe psychological disturbances, including anxiety disorders, clinical depression and self-injury issues.

To grasp the size of the problem, consider a report from Penn State University that quantifies the almost crippling demand for mental health services on college campuses. Discussing the report, Tyler Kingkade, senior editor and reporter for The Huffington Post, states, “Data collected at 139 college and university counseling centers, from 2009-2010 through 2014-2015, reflects ‘slow but consistent’ growth in students reporting depression, anxiety and social anxiety. And 20 percent of students seeking mental health treatment, the report found, are taking up about half of all campus counseling center appointments.”

Frank Bruni, New York Times op-ed columnist, commenting on the Harvard-led report in his piece “Rethinking College Admissions,” said, “They’re realizing that many kids admitted to top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions. And they’re acknowledging the extent to which the admissions process has contributed to this.”

The challenges inherent during the first year of college aside, for the still-uncommitted youth in the high school Class of 2018 the worst is about to be over. Even so, for those yet to seal the deal, what happens until then?

C2 Education proffers some advice for the applicants, including getting more information about the school(s), comparing options and responding correctly.

1.  Getting More Information

  • How many students stick around after freshman year?
  • How many students actually graduate?
  • How many students find good jobs after graduation?
  • Does the school offer the academic programs I’m interested in?
  • Are there extracurricular activities and social clubs that appeal to me?
  • What kinds of students enjoy attending this school?

2.  Comparing Your Options

  • Compare financial aid packages, and rule out any schools that are too far beyond your family’s means.
  • Make a pro and con list for each school. Sometimes seeing all of the possible benefits and consequences in black and white can make the decision easier.

3.  Responding Correctly

  • Send your Statement of Intent to Register and your deposit to your chosen college.
  • Notify the other colleges that you will not be attending.
  • Review any and all paperwork your college has sent. Make note of any additional applications and deadlines (such as housing applications).

And, voilà, they’re done! But, alas, high schools, colleges and parents may not be.

The Inside Higher Ed article “Making a Big Deal of College Signing Day” suggests that while for years high-school athlete’s commitments have been widely recognized, celebrations for non-athletes are becoming more commonplace and, presumably, just as important. Certainly, recognizing such a momentous right of passage for one’s children has meaningful ramifications for healthy youth development.

Another important role for parents during this stressful time is captured in last month’s TIME magazine article “It’s Time to Tell Your Kids It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go to College,” the main point of which appears to be “The path to success is not nearly so narrow as we think.” The author concludes, “Children are much more energized when they envision a future that is in line with their own values than when they dutifully do whatever they believe they have to do to live up to their parents’ or teachers’ or college admissions boards’ expectations. We don’t inspire our kids through fear. We inspire them by helping them to focus on getting better at something, rather than being the best, and by encouraging them to immerse themselves in something they love.

“So if you want your kids to succeed in life, don’t perpetuate a fear-based understanding of success. Start with the assumption that your children want their lives to work. Then tell them the truth: That we become successful by working hard at something that engages us, and by pulling ourselves up when we stumble.”

With that in mind, and the end in sight, we can only hope that our rising cohort of first-year college students, in the parlance of grief psychology, will experience acceptance or at least closure.

Each is an upside of the shelf life for college applications.

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