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How anxious students can keep college admissions in perspective

At some schools, counselors talk with students throughout the application cycle about the possibility that for some, the college ticket will just be easier.
At some schools, counselors talk with students throughout the application cycle about the possibility that for some, the college ticket will just be easier.(stock.adobe.com)

For anyone awaiting college decisions, the unfolding college admissions scandal involving bribery, cheating, falsification, and lying can’t be more ill-timed. Some hope it will spur change. For the moment, though, high school seniors are anxiously awaiting their final decisions — and concerned adults are trying to put things in a healthy perspective.

The bribery saga that emerged earlier this month creates a “teachable moment,” and “conversation should focus on the virtues of honor and dignity,” said Yolanda Johnson, executive officer for student services at Springfield Public Schools, where a large number of children will be the first in their families to attend college. “The first thing that comes to mind is thinking, ‘Where is the humanity in this?’ ” she said.

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She’s been reminding students that integrity and success are grounded in the hard work they have put forth to pursue their college dreams. Students have had a bitter reaction to these headlines, and they should, she said. “Their entire life has been grounded in the reality of an un-level playing field, and they are more resilient, more determined, more focused because of that.”

At Berwick Academy, a small independent school in South Berwick, Maine, counselors talk with students throughout the application cycle about the possibility that for some, the college ticket will be easier, whether that’s because they don’t need financial assistance, because they are potential donors, or because they are treated preferentially as legacies, said Moira McKinnon, director of college counseling. Students are made aware that not all institutional priorities are “fair” to them.

It can help students to realize that college admission isn’t a head-to-head competition. “Kids who got in by less-than-ethical behavior may not have deserved the place they got, but it does not automatically follow that they’re the sole reason a more academically qualified student didn’t get in,” noted McKinnon. Colleges may consider additional factors, such as regional or academic diversity, for instance. “No one factor will lead to an acceptance or a denial; no one applicant will keep another out,” she said.

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Getting denied from a college one loves is a bit like getting dumped, McKinnon added. “Take a few days to grieve: be angry or sad; eat your favorite comfort food; go for a quiet walk or get together with friends who will lend positive support.” Do what it takes to get past the vision of the favored school and then get to work. “Focus on the options you’ve [got] available . . . colleges that have admitted you see your strengths and your potential, and they’re eager to welcome you and help you become the best version of yourself.”

Darby Neff-Verre, counseling head at Brookline High School, said she’s been constantly reminding students that the college application process is an exciting time. “It’s the one time they start to think bigger than their immediate family and high school. Don’t lose that excitement.” A practical tip she shares with parents and students: Schedule weekly meetings as a family: “Get together with your child and ask how’re things going? What can we help with? Where do you need support? This structured time helps eliminate the madness of nonstop college conversations at home.” Then she reminds parents to tell their teenagers they love them and are proud of them. “I can guarantee these words are essential and powerful even when the young adults push them aside.”

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Tim Poynton, an associate professor in the department of counseling and school psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s School of Education, said there is a lot of stock put into making the right choice when it comes to picking a college because, presumably, it will affect the next four years. But the reality is that transferring is an option, he said. “People can and do transfer every year, and while this is not ideal, it may be better than staying at a college you aren’t happy at,” he said.

While students juggle all the unknowns, parents expressed shock at the extent of cheating revealed by the FBI involving admissions consultants and college coaches among others. They are also anguished at how complex the admittance process has become, especially at selective schools. Said one parent in Newton: “Kids face competition from the whole world. . . . No wonder anxiety levels are so high.”

So, what can parents do? Specialists trained to treat teenage stress and emotional issues suggest greater engagement. Dr. Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist in Needham, said to “invite their perspective” about recent headlines. A few possible dinner table conversation starters: How do you feel about this? Do you think there should be consequences for such cheating? Would you want your parents to behave like the scandal-associated parents did? Allow their responses to be a catalyst for a discussion about how not getting into a desired college can be disappointing, but does it mean that another college won’t be a very good match?

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During any discussion, it’s important for parents to validate the child’s point of view. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, but rather that you’re trying to understand them without being judgmental, added Brooks, the coauthor of “Raising Resilient Children.”

Deborah Offner, a clinical psychologist and school consultant in Newton, recommends families discuss the real value of education. Colleges, she said, have been reduced to brand names. It’s true that an elite college opens doors, but that doesn’t guarantee a lifetime of happiness.

“Education is a process, not a sticker on your car,” said Offner. A dubious viewpoint she hears in the community is the image of public colleges. “In affluent communities around here, state schools are looked down upon,” she noted. Instead of looking at a state school’s merits, a student may focus on “what will people think of me” if I choose to attend one.

She urges students to work on college lists that have integrity. “Don’t just create a rank order list. Find out what interests you, what makes you happy, and then identify a range of colleges,” she said, adding that families should find role models who aren’t from elite schools.

Krishan Eskew, a 17-year-old senior at Boston Latin High School, said the scandal hasn’t created waves in his scholastic world. Most students these days are aware that there are ways to pay your way in, he said, adding it exposes a much deeper lack of meritocracy than we want to believe. “I realize I can only do so much and my parents can’t buy my way in,” he said. Still, it’s easy to get sucked into rankings and prestige, he noted.

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Colleges here don’t base acceptance solely on test scores and school grades. Most schools, particularly the most competitive ones, take into account factors like extracurricular strength, athletic ability, and leadership as part of their so-called “holistic” review.

Such a non-quantifiable system allows colleges to “find more interesting and unique candidates. However, the gray areas in the system can lead to more corruption, an unfortunate side effect, but I don’t think this outweighs the benefits,” said Eskew.

His advice to his younger brother about the college process: “It’s up to you to try your hardest.”


Suchita Nayar can be reached at suchita.nayar@gmail.com.