Today’s graduating high school seniors are under enormous stress to “get into” a good college. (Courtesy “The Edge of Success” documentary)

Pressure of college admission takes toll on students

By Liza Meak

I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, which also happens to be the heart of the college admissions scandal. I wish I could say the charges the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts handed down in Operation Varsity Blues surprised me. Did it make me sad? Yes. Shock and awe? No.

I’m also a parent of three girls. My oldest is a sophomore at a public high school. I also co-directed, co-produced and wrote a documentary called “The Edge of Success,” which takes a critical look at two teenage suicide clusters that happened within five years in Palo Alto. What I quickly realized when starting the research for this project was that the college admission process was intrinsically linked to the increase in teenagers feeling depressed, anxious and even suicidal. The documentary spends as much time looking at the college admission process as it does the suicides.

Palo Alto and the town’s two high schools sit in the shadow of one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, Stanford University. In 2018, of the 47,450 students who applied to Stanford, the school accepted 2,040. That’s a 4.29 percent acceptance rate. For many teenagers in Palo Alto, it’s Stanford or bust.

“Growing up, my dream college was Stanford just because I was so used to repeating that ‘Oh, I want to go Stanford statement,’” says Lisa Hao, a Gunn High School alum and one of the students featured in the documentary. “Then you enter high school and the reality sets in.”

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a parent of two kids, one who graduated from Gunn and another who is a high school senior, knows this like few others. A former dean of freshmen at Stanford, she wrote the book, “How to Raise an Adult.” She’s seen firsthand the amount of stress high school students feel. “High school has been so narrowly directed and intensely focused on the great scores, the accolades, the awards, the leadership, and the community service to demonstrate to a college that you’re worthy,” Lythcott-Haims said. “We’ve asked them to trade their healthy, happy childhood in exchange for the chance to be one of those people who will be admitted to the quote-unquote right college.”

With statements like this, is it any wonder teenagers face a mental health crisis? That may sound extreme, but the statistics back it up, showing this is not simply a elite Bay Area problem.

Between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by more than 60 percent, according to a new study in the journal of Abnormal Psychology. Depression rates are going up, but the number of kids getting treatment for mental health problems is only about 20 percent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

There are many reasons why depression rates are rising, but experts believe the pressure of getting into an elite school can add to a child’s anxiety or depression. “The sense that success or failure are very high stakes has led to an intensifying of the competition to get into elite colleges, even though for most young people, where they go to college will have less impact on their career future than they believe,” says Dr. Victor Schwartz, chief medicalofficer of The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the emotional health of teenagers and preventing suicide. “The result of this seems to be that there is no room for error at all. If you get a B in seventh grade, there is a perception that your future is shot.”

So if teenagers and their parents believe only a select few colleges are good enough for them, what’s a parent to do? As we’ve all read, at least 33 allegedly went to extremes, prying their way into the so-called “side door” and bribing their kids’ way into elite and Ivy League colleges.

Millions of others go the legal route. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for bribed ACT and SAT test administrators or faking photographs of their kids playing sports, they will pay thousands of dollars for legitimate private college counselors and test prep. Students say this is the norm.

“I don’t know a single person who has not taken a prep class which costs thousands of dollars,” said Olivia Eck, another Gunn High School alum. “In other parts of the nation where they can’t afford classes, they’re stuck with lower scores because they don’t have the means of prepping for it. But everyone at Gunn does, and I did too. I knew I wasn’t able to compete on a level of getting into a good school if I didn’t have these scores.”

Asking who’s to blame for this thinking, the parent or the kid, is kind of like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg. It’s a vicious cycle. Parents no doubt want the best for their kids, and kids want the best opportunities. That’s where things get tricky and parents can go down the slippery slope of going to extreme measures to get their kids into super selective schools. But at the end of the day, the parents are the adults. Schwartz believes how parents act can be as important, if not more important.

“Having reasonable goals, expectations and modeling the acceptance of the fact that we all fail sometimes, make mistakes and missteps and showing how to constructively respond to them are important,” says Schwartz. “We also can help by modeling values and ideals that we believe are important and valuable.”

I get this. I, too, want the best for my daughters. But, what is the best for them? Is it to get into an Ivy League college? I don’t think so. In fact, it can be detrimental. There are countless news reports of kids who have reached what they and their parents believe is the ultimate accomplishment, only to succumb to suicide. While there’s no clear evidence of higher rates of suicide at elite colleges compared to other schools, 57 percent of entering freshmen reported in a national survey that they “felt a great deal of pressure” to attend a well-known college. And 50 percent of the students surveyed said they felt stressed most or all of the time, regardless where they go to college.

In the same survey, 87 percent of students said college prep during high school focused more on academics than emotional readiness. It doesn’t have to be like this. While teaching kids the basics like reading, writing, critical thinking and history is necessary, emotional intelligence is just as important. Teenagers need to learn how to express their feelings and learn resiliency.

Luckily, some very emotionally smart teachers are taking proactive measures to make sure this happens. One such teacher is Roni Habib, who started a positive psychology class at Gunn and created a company dedicated to teaching teachers how to implement emotional intelligence in any class. Habib says he knows for a fact that his positive psychology class has helped save lives.

“To literally see behavioral change in kids, I just feel so fortunate and grateful to be able to to do that with them,” Habib says.

When we start focusing more on the whole student, we may start to chip away at the current college admission madness. I’m skeptical, but hopeful we can make this happen.

Liza Meak is the co-director/co-producer and writer of the documentary film, “The Edge of Success,” which looks at the issue of teenage suicide from the perspective of six students who went to a rigorous public high school in Palo Alto, and experienced the loss of five classmates to suicide.

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