It’s that time of year again, when US colleges and universities announce their early decision admits, followed in March by regular decisions. With many selective institutions of higher education posting (boasting?) admission rates in the single digits — some below 5 percent — our kids face a headwind of unhealthy pressure. Performance criteria, especially those reducible to numbers, such as grades and test scores, will always be a practical part of admissions, but they need not dominate.
Students who have worked hard for years are agonizing about whether their efforts and sacrifices will pay off in the form of an acceptance to one of their top-choice schools. For those who get a yes, the joy and affirmation will be profound, almost as profound as the disappointment and invalidation for the overwhelming majority who get a no. The cultural affliction saddling both groups, long before they are bifurcated, is a fiendish trio: narrow definitions of success, high-stakes-outcome beliefs, and parental overinvolvement. The word “affliction” is apt because unhealthy pressure has contributed to rising rates of adolescent anxiety and depression.
Of course, young people feel pressure from sources other than the college admissions process, yet this season provides an opportune target for intervention. Indeed, parents, teachers, coaches, and other caregivers have an ethical responsibility to ease the unhealthy pressure that contaminates many young people’s formal education. The research that fellow psychologist Hendrie Weisinger and I completed in preparation for writing our book “The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure” uncovered practical ways that adults can transform harmful pressure into healthy pressure and help kids be their best selves.
First, we must broaden our definition of success without lowering our standards. What students do during their college career matters far more than where they do it. Nevertheless, adults typically attribute more importance to the name of the school than to the name of the student on a college diploma. Experienced employers know better. They interview and hire talented people from a diverse pool of educational institutions because they know that every school graduates some slackers and some rock stars.
To disabuse high school students of the notion that success is best found on a short list of colleges and universities with international reputations, we must emphasize the supremacy of learning, creativity, service to others, and personal well-being over brand. We must talk with students about the wide range of higher learning options available to them, including self-guided study, travel, and apprenticeships. And we must help them clarify their intellectual passions, character strengths, and ideas for improving the world.
Second, we must stop describing college admissions as an ultra-high-stakes endeavor. The more our kids believe this process has a do-or-die outcome, the bigger blow their performance and mental health will suffer. Suggesting to adolescents that a life of consequence and happiness is much likelier if they are admitted to one of the “right” schools is irresponsible, because it’s not true.
This is a central paradox of parental pressure: We believe that exaggerating a certain outcome’s importance will increase young people’s motivation. Instead, that type of pressure typically increases anxiety, depression, and even suicidality while simultaneously diminishing performance.
The best alternative is to tout the importance of effort, especially sustained effort. As a clinician and executive coach, I frequently urge both students and career professionals to play the long game by recognizing that sustained effort over weeks, months, and years will usually yield a desirable outcome and always yield personal gratification.
Another way to guard against the harmful effects of hyperbolic descriptions of outcomes is to talk with students about the importance of fit. Finding a dozen or more colleges or universities whose facilities, location, course offerings, and co-curricular activities match a student’s interests and abilities is superior to building a list based on reputation or ranking. It has taken decades, but schools are slowly disengaging from US News & World Report’s infamous “Best Colleges” list.
Third, we must prevent our vicarious enjoyment of young people’s achievements from becoming obsessive. There is a pernicious type of parental overinvolvement that contributes to harmful pressure and seems to transcend culture: I need you to achieve this for me. This kind of pressure is particularly detrimental because it burdens young people with responsibility for their caregivers’ happiness. We should feel proud of what our kids accomplish; we shouldn’t burden them with feeling that our mental health, social status, or self-esteem depends on those accomplishments.
These and other ways of transforming harmful to healthy pressure are easier said than done, especially because we seldom question our own group’s norms. I should know. Before I understood the healthy-unhealthy pressure distinction, I applied unhealthy pressure into my own children.
Both of my boys started playing violin before kindergarten. Once a year, they would give an informal recital for close friends and family. As part of that celebration, my wife and I would give them a modest bouquet of flowers during the final applause. This gesture seemed appropriate and symbolic of their beautiful playing. But as I lay awake one night following a particularly buoyant duo recital, I realized how misplaced our timing was. Like everyone we’d ever seen give flowers to a soloist, we’d waited until the performance was over. That timing had spotlighted the outcome — their completed concert — when we should have been reinforcing their sustained effort. The hours and hours of rehearsal, expressions of creativity, positive attitudes, and bonds with their teachers were their more meaningful successes.
A year later, we started a new tradition of giving our boys flowers the day before their performances. Although our old tradition was not conditional, meaning we would never have withheld our post-performance bouquet if the boys had not played well, the pre-performance bouquet was a way of giving warm, specific praise that expressed our love in an unconditional manner.
I explained the change to our sons by saying something like “I’m excited for tomorrow. You’ve worked hard for months, and you should feel proud of that effort. Lately, when I’ve listened to you practice, I’ve thought about the joy people feel when they listen to your playing. Remember to look up at people’s faces when they’re applauding, so you can savor that.”
The coming days are the ideal time to communicate with children in a way that reduces unhealthy pressure. Take a walk, have a chat, or write a note before your child hears from any of the schools to which they’ve applied. Praise them for the multiyear effort they sustained to amass the achievements needed to apply to college in the first place. Describe a successful life in realistically broad terms, along with the multiple, circuitous pathways that can lead there. Cite a few of your child’s character strengths that make you especially proud, and remind them those strengths will endure, regardless of admissions decisions. Above all, tell them you love them unconditionally. It’s their name, not the school’s name, that matters.
Christopher Thurber is a psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy. He has worked with schools, camps, and executives on five continents and is the author of two books for parents, “The Summer Camp Handbook” and “The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure.”