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Newton forum tries to put brakes on college application pressure

Parents listened at a forum at Newton South on the book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.”
Parents listened at a forum at Newton South on the book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.”Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe

NEWTON — If anyone has lingering doubts that the college admissions process has grown exponentially more stressful over the past three decades, Francis Azzarto can put them to rest.

At 72, Azzarto is going through the college application process with his younger daughter, a senior at Newton North High School, after sending a son to college two years ago, and three older children to college in the 1980s.

“The amount of pressure I’m seeing with my younger kids now is unbelievable,” he said. “You can’t imagine the stress on some of these kids. Even smart kids come home and think they aren’t smart because they’re not taking enough AP classes.”

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Azzarto was among approximately 250 parents who went out on a cold, rainy Wednesday night to talk about a book that gives them permission to take their foot off the gas pedal in the high stakes race to push their children to the top of their class and into an elite college.

“It was clearly a discussion the community was hungry to have,” said school Superintendent David Fleishman, who organized the public discussion at Newton South High School about the book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

Fleishman saw the stress students in his system and around the area are under to get into top colleges and decided it was time to try to change the narrative by suggesting parents read the book and discuss the topic.

He expected a good turnout, but what he saw were parents happy to engage with one another, lining up to ask questions, and clearly interested in what the panelists had to say.

The panel — which included Ronne Patrick Turner, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Northeastern University; college consultant Jennifer King; Beth Swederskas, guidance department head at Newton North; and Daniel Rubin, guidance department head at Newton South — had a seemingly simple message for parents.

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Don’t be a “snowplow parent” and always clear your child’s path. Let them fail and learn the valuable lesson that they can survive that lousy test grade, that dropping an AP class will not have lifelong consequences, and that your success will ultimately be defined by much more than where you went to college.

Calm down, they said. Everything is going to turn out OK.

“What some kids hear from colleges is, I have to take the highest level courses my school offers,” Swederskas said. “No, you don’t. You need to take the highest level course you can manage.

“If you come back from a college visit and think, I have to do this, this, this, this. Then maybe that’s not the right college for you,” she said.

But some parents were skeptical of the panel’s message.

“You talk about character and resilience, and that assumes some failure,” one parent said. “That is noble to speak about, but how is that actually viewed?”

“Not every student we admit has a perfect academic record,” Turner said, explaining that every institution has a different admission standard. “The important thing is that there is an academic match, a good fit.”

She also reminded parents that there are different ways to get to where a student wants to be.

“There is nothing wrong with transferring, nothing wrong,” she said.

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Another parent said that while he agrees with the message, he can’t forget how pervasive it is that “where you went to school is how you are perceived.”

“Do you know where Ronald Reagan went to college?” Fleishman asked.

At the end of the night, many parents expressed relief that they weren’t the only ones out there who felt the college application process has gotten out of hand.

Dale Smith said she came to the forum with friends who had known each other for 15 years, and yet they didn’t know where each other had gone to school.

“If you look around your workplace, you have no idea where people went to college,” she said.

But times have changed, according to Azzarto, who said the experience his older children had in high school is completely different from what he is seeing now during his daughter’s senior year.

“My older kids were just kids, and they all succeeded well, more than well, and that’s the point Bruni is trying to make,” he said.

For Lisa Rothstein, who has a daughter in 11th grade, the discussion was a chance to exhale and realize she’s not alone in her relatively relaxed approach to the college search.

“I initially did feel that pressure,” she said, describing a telephone conversation she had with a friend who had lined up assorted help for her daughter, including enrolling her in test prep classes.

“We had a long, frenzied conversation, and when I hung up I was in a panic,” Rothstein said. “I felt like a terrible parent for not doing those things for my daughter.”

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The forum, at least for one night, eased her anxiety.

“I was thinking I was a lone wolf out there, but after tonight, I feel a lot better,” she said.


Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.