When the high stakes aren’t artificial

A New York Times opinion piece this week, “Let’s Hear It for the Average Child,” was initially just my kind of read. What a great reminder that kids who ride the bench, or who try but still earn C’s, or who draw, read, or write poetry instead of completing all their assigned homework all have their own gifts and magic to bring to the world regardless of what their GPAs and other high school standards of measurement may indicate. I liked the message. In fact, I’ve written plenty of similar posts for this blog.

But as it made the rounds in the social media circles of colleagues in the industry, several fellow counselors pointed out that there was a tone-deafness in the article that needed to be addressed. The truth is that the kids described in the piece are only able to fully enjoy that reassurance when they have the support and resources to sustain them until they find their way.

The student who doesn’t come from means, who’s relying on every penny of financial aid and scholarship money to attend college, cannot afford—literally or figuratively—to bomb her chemistry midterm because she stayed up all night counseling a heartbroken friend.

The student who works a job after school every day to help contribute money to his family doesn’t get the freedom of acting as the team’s equipment manager all season no matter how much valuable learning might take place.

The student who desperately wants to be the first in her family to attend college, but lacks the role models or the encouragement at home, doesn’t have the luxury of meandering her way through high school classes while enjoying her hobbies, friends, or just-for-fun pursuits.

Yes, there’s too much pressure in the college admissions process. Yes, we’re doing something wrong for kids when we send them the message that they have to excel in every class, every activity, every pursuit lest they be left behind. No matter what a student’s background or upbringing, that feels like an unsustainable and unfair expectation.

But the stakes are a lot higher for some kids than others. The answer to “What’s the worst that can happen to me?” looks very different for the student with unlimited support to fall back on than it does for the student who’s seeking upward mobility via education.

It was a helpful reminder for me that there are always areas for growth as professionals, even after being at this for twenty years and blogging every day for the last ten of them. In the four months I have left writing this blog, I’ll work to keep this new perspective in mind.

Much of the pressure around college admissions is due to artificially high—and often self-inflated—stakes. But the stakes aren’t artificial for everyone.