Alarmism

I had a great visit with my parents last weekend but a less pleasant visit with my mother’s car.

The vehicle is equipped with a warning system to alert you if you’re about to collide with something. It sounds great in theory. But in practice, any time you’re within fifteen feet of a solid object in any direction—regardless of whether or not you’re headed towards that object—the beeping starts.

Pulling into a parking spot with a car in an adjacent spot? “Beep!”

Slowing to a safe stop behind a car in front of you? “BEEP!”

Passing a wayward shopping cart in a parking lot from a perfectly safe distance? “BEEEEEEP!”

Seemingly every move you make comes with a warning signal that could be nothing or could spell imminent disaster, with no way to immediately differentiate between the two. And that alarmist warning system creates a perpetually alarmed driver.

Blogger’s note: Mom, I know you read this blog. I really like your car—I just don’t like this particular feature.

I see some families behaving during the college admissions process like the car with the alarmist warning system.

Didn’t get into the honors English class? “Houston, we’ve got a problem, one that could keep you out of college.”

Made the team but spending most of your time on the bench? “I don’t like the sound of that, and neither will colleges.”

SAT score didn’t break 1200 like you’d hoped it would? “Warning! Warning! Warning!”

I’m not dismissing the reality that some admissions concerns are legitimate. But whether or not there’s cause for alarm depends entirely on your goals and the nature of the concern. And more troublingly, like a car’s overly sensitive warning system, these alarmists can indiscriminately spread their panic to others.

The uncertainty of college admissions creates much of the associated anxiety, and yes, even the alarmism. Families are grasping for some sense of control during a process where so many of the decisions are under the control of others. Without the reasonable assurance that everything will work out just as you hope it will, worry and panic can be a natural consequence.

But the truth is that admissions alarmism almost never leads to better choices, experiences, or outcomes. It just leaves you in a constant state of worry with very little relief in sight.

If you’re surrounded by admissions alarmists who are spreading their panic to you, be compassionate about the anxiety they’re feeling, as it’s never a happy state for any family. But don’t take on their indiscriminate panic. They’re (over)reacting to their own stressful situation, not channeling helpful advice that will improve yours.

And if you’ve fallen prey to the alarmism, I understand where that comes from. You want things to go well for your student as any good parent does. But instead of panicking reactively, consider what you’re actually worrying about. Is it really the SAT score that concerns you, or the fear that Dartmouth will say no? Sometimes coming right out and naming the real worry takes away the power of that panic.

Concerns have their place—in parenting, and in college admissions. But consistent alarmism is not a desirable feature.