The following article was published in the December issue of the Torrey Pines Falconer, and cowritten with Michelle Oberman:
Seventy-seven percent of TPHS graduates go on to four-year universities each year. Yet stress, parental pressure and competition all too often permeate that rarified population, as some TPHS students spend all of high school thinking about college.
“It was the same when I went here,” head counselor Brennan Dean said. “I graduated in ‘99, and there was an extreme focus on college then.”
Dean said most of the pressure stems from the home and community environment.
“The community has, for the last 10 or 15 years, had that focus,” Dean said. “We have a community with well-educated parents … what we’ve seen is kids who have been raised with the expectation that they will go to four-year colleges.”
Yet college admissions have become much more competitive over the past decade. Christopher Hamilton, president and CEO of Summa Education, which offers test preparation courses and college counseling, attributes this trend to demographics.
“Ivy Leagues, as recently as a decade ago, had 10,000 applicants; now they get 35,000.
UCLA used to get 35,000 applications; now they get 72,000,” Hamilton said.
Rachel*, who hopes to attend a prestigious university, said that the pressure she feels is “a combination of everything,” but comes mainly from friends and family.
The pressure is double-sided. While Dean said it is “great” that parents expect their children to attend college, as a result of these expectations, “some students put pressure on themselves to get into schools that may not be realistic.”
Hamilton said “a lot of students have crazy ideas about college.”
“They think they want to major in medicine, which is not possible in American schools, or [they think that] a good college list would be seven Ivies,” Hamilton said. “Students are very skeptical about colleges they’ve never heard of, but they’ve only heard of eight or nine schools.”
Michelle Martinelli (12), who was recruited to play water polo by Harvard University, said before she was recruited the college process was “overwhelming.”
“I didn’t know where I wanted to go, where was realistic, where was a reach school,” Martinelli said. “Deciding I wanted to play water polo in college really helped me.”
Much of the hype surrounding “good” colleges comes from the colleges themselves.
“Colleges spend millions of dollars marketing and advertising to high school students,” Hamilton said. “Colleges market to students for reasons that are idealistic and also cynical.”
According to Hamilton, in order to improve selectivity and thus their position on U.S. News annual rankings, colleges want more students to apply because they more rejections make them look more exclusive.
Watching her classmates excel under the pressure of getting into college has driven Rachel to pursue success.
“You see everyone else excelling at so many different things. You have to excel, too to be competitive,” Rachel said.
Many students would admit they feel pushed sometimes, and Rachel is no exception. On a 10-point scale, she usually ranks her stress as a six or seven, though it “fluctuates” from a five to a 10.
Unlike Rachel, who thinks about college “all the time,” John Stucky (10) is only “somewhat” concerned about college at this point, even though he wants to end up at Stanford University.
“I am not very stressed. I get enough sleep, and I am not too overwhelmed by homework,” Stucky said.
Still, Stucky does believe that “grades are crucial to a successful future,” and he feels pressure to do well academically because of his family’s expectations and goals for the future.
While many students share Stucky’s sentiment, others disagree about just how important high school grades are.
“I’m in between [caring and not caring] about school. I get decent grades; I’m just not a straight-A student or a bad student,” Uri Bialostozky (11) said. “It’s not that big of a concern to me where I go for my first two years of college because your first two years in college are general studies, anyway.”
Along with having good grades, selective colleges also expect students to be well-rounded, as admissions officers look to build a class of passionate, interesting people. While well-intended, this attitude often backfires, as some students participate in extracurricular activities solely because they think it will help them get into college.
“I continued the Spanglish club that my friend started last year purely for college reasons,” Bialostozky said. “I also do a leadership program on Saturdays … where I am a counselor, and that looks very good for college because I get a ton of community service hours out of it. That’s why I do it.”
Yet some believe that students who work to have the best possible test scores or the longest list of extracurriculars miss the big picture.
“University of Chicago received 300 applications with perfect SATs and rejected 60 percent.
To me, that’s not a bad thing,” Hamilton said.
“Colleges don’t really care about perfect scores and grades. [Colleges] are really looking for true contributors and leaders … [and] are getting better and better about seeing who is an amazing person and not just trying to impress colleges.”
According to an admissions officer at a selective California college, who asked that neither he nor the school be identified, schools seek out enthusiastic students. Though it can be difficult to tell who does their activities just for college, the admissions officer said that college essays can help them determine how genuine the applicant is.
“We prefer people that are actually passionate about their activities, although it is difficult to see who is and who isn’t,” the admissions officer said.
Though Rachel said she knows many people who do activities just to attract colleges, she is not one of them.
“I got started in a lot of things for college, [but] I stopped doing it for college when I [actually] started enjoying it,” Rachel said.
Some people are just happy that students are involved in the community at all, no matter what their reasons.
Stucky said that, although some students may do activities for the wrong reasons, “at least they are getting involved.”
As the statistics indicate, getting into college is not likely to get easier. The only possibility for change is how students react under the pressure, perhaps learning that life, not college applications, should come first.
*Name changed at interviewee’s request