A new film about the pressures on kids to perform

The pressure to achieve does a lot more to kids than just ruin the college admissions process.  According to a new film"A Race to Nowhere," it's producing a generation of kids with anxiety, stress-induced illness, and feelings of burnout before they even start college. 

From the film's website:

Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

You can find a list of screenings here.  And here's the film's trailer:

I’m going to college–not you

I just bought I'm Going to College—Not You!: Surviving the College Search with Your Child and there are a few things I like about it already.  

1.  The author is both the dean of admissions at Keynon College and the mother of a college student, so she's certainly got plenty of experience to guide parents in this area.

2. The book includes short essays from prominent writers about their own experiences with their children during the college application process.  I think parents appreciate empathetic reminders that other parents have been through all of this before and survived. 

3.  She doesn't excuse the colleges for contributing to the stress of the process, as she revealed in this interview:


We are culpable. We have upped the ante with this whole arc of
marketing. We’ve had 20 years of this amped-up competition, and it’s
kind of like a gyroscope—it’s got its own momentum. We have an
obligation to serve the institution at the same time we’re serving the
student, and sometimes it’s impossible to do both. So we have to
acknowledge our responsibility in this. We have to take a chill pill
ourselves while telling parents to do the same thing.

For parents: a reminder to enjoy this time

Here's a video from Boston University showing one of the proudest, but also one of the most difficult days in a parent's life—dropping your student off at college and saying goodbye.  Warning:  If you're a crier, it might get to you.

Parents, the fact that there are over 2,000 colleges in the country means even if your kids aren't admitted to their first choice schools, both of you are going to experience this day.  Whether or not you enjoy the time leading up to it is entirely up to you. 

Don't let the stress of college admissions ruin the process for you.  Resolve that when the day comes for you to experience what these parents in the video are experiencing, you'll look back on the process that lead to it as one that you enjoyed together as a family.  It will help you keep your perspective when the SAT scores don't come back as high as you'd hoped, or when other parents turn the process into a status competition.

Don’t fall for the sham

This whole belief that there are about 40 colleges in the universe that are "better" than all the others?  It's a big sham.  And it's one that far too many students and parents fall for. 

I know that all 2500+ colleges in the country don't offer the same quality of education. A kid who has the intellect and drive to be accepted at Yale wouldn't have the same experience if he attended a college where he was surrounded by students who got all "C's" in high school.  I get that. 

But anyone who suggests that Yale is an empirically "better" school than Michigan, University of Chicago, College of Wooster, UVA, Mt. Holyoke, Haverford, Rice, or Oberlin is flat out wrong.  That's not just some crazy opinion of mine; there are studies that back it up. 

Non-believers should read The Chosen, a UC Berkeley sociologist's exhaustive study of college admissions.  His findings showed there was no measurable difference between the outcomes of students who attended the most selective schools and those who attended any of over a hundred schools that accepted more of their applicants. The graduates of famous colleges don't get better paying jobs, they aren't happier, they aren't more successful, their lives aren't any better, etc.

Yes, there are vast differences between the colleges that accept almost nobody and those that accept almost everybody.  But you've got to go pretty deep–deeper than 30 or 80 or even 100–down the list of 2500 schools before those differences become noticeable. 

It's time for us to ask ourselves, is our obsession with gaining admission to prestigious universities, and all the lost sleep and anxiety that accompanies it really worth it?  Is the third round of test preparation for one last try at the SAT worth it?  Are the multiple tutors to move kids from B's to A's, the clamoring to get into AP classes, the gaming of GPAs, and the measuring of kids' accomplishments based on the potential appeal to colleges really worth it?

Hard work is good.  Emotional investment in your education and your future is good.  Feeding your mind and preparing yourself for admission to a college that accepts other hard-working, intellectually curious students is absolutely worth it.  Do those things, and your life will be different because of it.

But if you're doing it all because you think that only Harvard will do and that a Kenyon education just won't get the job done, you're falling for the sham.

Cloning is still for sheep

A couple pieces of great advice I came across on these colleges' websites today:


When making curriculum choices, always seek out courses that will enrich and challenge you, rather than thinking about how they will look to a college application reader—every college reads applications differently, so it’s difficult to predict what will look “good” to every college.

University of Chicago


Our hope is that your curriculum will inspire you to develop your intellectual passions, not suffer from unnecessary stress. The students who thrive at Stanford are those who are genuinely excited about learning, not necessarily those who take every single AP, Honors, or Accelerated class just because it has that name.



Some applicants struggle to turn themselves into clones of the "ideal" MIT student – you know, the one who gets triple 800s on the SAT. Fortunately, cloning is still for sheep. What we really want to see on your application is you being you – pursuing the things you love, growing, changing, taking risks, learning from your mistakes, all in your own distinctive way. College is not a costume party; you're not supposed to come dressed as someone else. Instead, college is an intense, irreplaceable four-year opportunity to become more yourself than you've ever been. What you need to show us is that you're ready to try.



This process of preparing for college can be equal parts fun and frustration.  Try to focus on the former.


“College Admissions Live” premieres tonight

Tonight, we're giving online television a try with:

"Why Good Kids Write Bad College Essays"
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, September 22
Live 6 p.m. PST  What time is that in my time zone?
At our online channel: http://www.justin.tv/collegewise

This won't be a polished studio production–just two college admissions experts and a webcam.  But what we may lack in production value, we'll make up for with great advice.  We hope you'll join us. 

Authenticity trumps strategy

There's some vigorous debate going on at The Choice blog right now over their thread, "The Perils of Being Too Cute in Your College Application."  It all started with a question of whether or not you should list something like being president of the Lady Gaga fan club.  Yesterday, a former admissions officer from Stanford even weighed in.

Here's my take.  Authenticity always trumps strategy.  In 11 years of doing this, I have never once seen a student who came off as endearingly cute or funny on a college application by trying to be that way.  Endearing responses always come from students just being themselves–funny, intellectual, geeky, or whatever else they might be.

If you're a Lady Gaga fanatic and you proudly serve as the president of her fan club, you obviously have no shame about it.  Why should you have any shame about it on your college application?  List it.  Maybe even write an essay entitled, "I Go Gaga for Gaga."  That's who you are.  

But if you couldn't name a single artist selling songs right now, and can instead name the last 20 recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics, list your membership in the physics club and fly your physics flag high. It's not better or worse than the Gaga kid.  It's just who you are. 

Trying too hard to be something you're not is pretty much always a bad idea (unless you're, say, a kleptomaniac trying not to be one).  Don't try to be cute, or funny, or intellectual, or anything else on your college application.  Just be yourself and you'll do a great job of sharing whichever of those qualities really are yours.

Join us live online for “Why Good Kids Write Bad College Essays”

We're about to try something new and exciting, and we're hoping you'll be a part of it.

This week, we're debuting College Admissions Live, a free session on the web where our experts will discuss the college admissions process.  We’ll stream it live from our webcam, and viewers will be able to ask us questions via a text chat that will run alongside the video.  Our first session will focus on writing great college essays.

"Why Good Kids Write Bad College Essays"
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, September 22
Live @ 6 p.m. PST 
Free at our new online channel

What we'll cover
Too many good kids write bad college essays—stories about life lessons learned playing sports or how volunteering at a blood drive taught them the importance of helping others.  Every good kid has a better tale to tell.  We’ll show you how.  Join us to learn…

    * What admissions officers really want (and don't want) to read
    * Overused topics you really should avoid
    * How to find and write your best stories

We’ll talk for about 30 minutes, then take questions for 15 minutes.
About the hosts
Kevin McMullin is the founder and president of Collegewise.  He also writes this blog and gets self-conscious when writing about himself in the third person like this.  Arun Ponnusamy is the founder and college counselor at Open Road Education.  He worked as an assistant director of admissions at the University of Chicago and Caltech, and as an admissions reader at UCLA.  He has read approximately 1,273 bad college essays about blood drives.
How to watch
Just visit our channel on Wednesday, September 22 at 6 p.m. PST. (What time is that in my time zone?)
No reservations required. Just drop in at the start time.  If you'd like us to send you an email reminder the day of the show, just register here.
We're not promising great production value (it will just be the two of us in front of a webcam).  But we can promise great advice and hope you'll tune in to join us.

One place not to find a better way

Colleges spend months creating their applications.  They compose the essay questions and arrange the information until the admissions committee has an application that will provide them the information they want, in exactly the way they want it presented. 

So how do you think an admissions officer reacts when in response to a question that asks you to list your activities in the space provided, an applicant simply writes, "See attached resume."?

There are lots of better ways to approach the application process.  There are better ways to get organized and to put together the information for the people writing your letters of recommendation.  There are better ways to choose the colleges to which you will apply, to write your essays and to conduct yourself in your college interviews.  It's worth considering all of them. 

But never do anything that ignores or contradicts the directions on the application.  No matter how unique you think your situation may be, no matter how much more compelling you think your candidacy would be, if you'd be ignoring their directions, don't do it.  Colleges would prefer you do it their way.