I recently read a book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be by Frank Bruni, that shed some light on the college admissions hysteria many families find themselves immersed in, particularly those who live in affluent communities. Over the past decade, college admissions rates have plummeted, with some of the elite schools now boasting rates in the 5% range, yet families have become ever more focused on obtaining admission to a small list of these elite schools. 

At the same time, there is no evidence that graduation from one of the elite schools prepares a student any better for their career or leads them to be more successful or happy. Success and happiness in life are more driven by a person’s intrinsic motivation and perseverance. There are countless examples of successful business people and world leaders whose path didn’t involve graduation from an elite school. Some never even went to college.

This admissions obsession results in students overly focused on checking the box, rather than learning and enjoying the journey. It’s a contributor to the significant stress and anxiety high school students experience today, which can lead to depression and in extreme cases, suicide.

So, what’s a concerned parent to do?

  1. Stop encouraging a focus on a few elite schools that everyone is trying to get into. Not only are the admissions rates ridiculously low, but legacies (children of alumni) and recruited athletes account for a disproportionate share of the few admissions. Parents are a big part of the problem by encouraging a focus on schools to which the student has little chance of getting accepted.
  2. Encourage your child to explore what they are passionate about.  From a young age, help your child explore a wide variety of interests, instead of making them focus on one or two things too early. Observe them to see what they gravitate towards or seem particularly passionate about. Encourage them to pursue these passions further. In high school, encourage them to take any aptitude tests offered by the school career counselor. Have them talk to other adults about their careers and life journeys. Travel with them to show them the broader world.
  3. Help them build a list of “best fit” colleges before peer pressure causes them to focus on the schools everyone else is applying to. There are many resources for researching the thousands of universities and colleges, including books like the Fiske Guide to Colleges and The College Finder. In addition to their passions, have them explore what type of environments they are more likely to thrive in and find colleges that offer this. Do they do best in a large school or small school? Close to home or far away? Warm climate or cold climate? Which schools have strong departments in the topics that interest them?

Our society has become overly focused on a very narrow definition of success with a very narrow path to achieving it. With a bit more thoughtfulness and intention by us parents, our children will define what success in life looks like for them and create a path to get there.