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Living the College Dream

college-students-studying-in-classroomOpen any website, turn on any television, and you will see the latest updates regarding the SAT scandal, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.” According to an article by Natalie Hope McDonald, “About 50 people (including more than 30 parents) have been indicted by the U.S. Attorney in what could become the biggest bribery scandal in college history.”  The story is hard to ignore because of the involvement of Hollywood stars like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, but as a mother of two teenagers, I find it upsetting on many levels.

For example, a slew of questions come to mind: How much pressure have we put on our kids these days? How unfair is the college admission process, economically and racially? What must students accomplish in order to get into college? Do they need perfect SAT/ACT scores? Must they start an orphanage in a faraway country to be considered by elite universities like Yale, Georgetown, Wake Forest, etc. (all of which were involved in this scandal)? Yes, as parents we want to provide the best for our children, but the best might be real life experience, not slipping a shyster a boatload of money so he can hire someone to take an achievement exam for your child.

With a senior in high school and a sophomore in college, this subject is not foreign to our family. Only a few months ago at a workshop my husband attended, the advice being doled out was “while grades and awards are important, a student needs international recognition if she wants to be noticed.” Excuse me? Did I hear that correctly? What happened to the idea of being a good student, period? Or, being a good human being, period? In this grand push for the college of one’s dreams, what is being lost along the way?

Thankfully, out there in “College Frenzy Land,” there are some voices of reason. One of my favorite education journalists is Deborah Farmer Kris. She writes about the social-emotional development of a teenager outweighing any 4.0+ report card they might achieve. In her article entitled Three Things Overscheduled Kids Need More of in Their Lives, she emphasizes the “PDF” philosophy espoused by Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. What’s PDF, you ask? It consists of Playtime, Downtime, and Family Time! Pope asserts these factors “protect kids against a host of negative outcomes, strengthen resilience, and bolster students’ mental wellness and academic engagement.”

Author Brennan Barnard offers some calming words of advice for college searchers as well. In his Forbes article, College Admission, Helplessness and Choice, he emphasizes that students do not have to feel helpless when looking at colleges. “The reality is that students have choice—contrary to the dominant narrative, they do have control.” He proceeds by listing some of the areas where they can assert control, such as cost (planning out what they can afford), resume building (not participating in everything under the sun), and honors classes (asking themselves “Are you genuinely excited about the classes you are taking and the degree of challenge you have elected?”) If there is a way to reduce this anxiety, Barnard would argue that road should be taken.

At the library we also have many resources. Surviving the College Application Process by Lisa Bleich is one of them. I enjoyed the case studies Bleich reveals in order to “find your unique angle for success.” Having developed her own company, College Bound Mentor, LLC, she offers guidance by using a strategic system that includes “tools to help students think about who they really are, how they learn best… and, most important, what makes them different and unique.” Each chapter is named after a student (such as Noah and Hayley and Francesca) and their personalities and answers to what they are looking for in a college prove to be insightful.

In the book Find the Perfect College for You, authors Rosalind P. Marie and C. Claire Law select 82 schools and analyze them according to the Meyers-Briggs personality indicators. For example, an Introvert studying Accounting might find Bates College more his cup of tea than Amherst College. Likewise, Robert Franek’s book, Colleges that Create Futures, looks at “50 schools that launch careers by going beyond the classroom.” You might be surprised to discover which colleges are included and why, but Northeastern University was one of them. If you find this book helpful, Franek also wrote Colleges That Pay You Back.

One of my favorite books related to this topic, however, is Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, by Frank Bruni. Published in 2015 before the SAT Scandal, Bruni puts things in perspective. He argues his book is an antidote to the college admissions mania, and he’s right. A bestselling author and a columnist for the New York Times, Bruni uses “statistics, surveys and the stories of hugely successful people who didn’t attend the most exclusive schools” to show that education is what you make of it.

In many ways this leads back to the hard-learned lesson in our own family. My oldest daughter had that “dream school” in mind, like many students do. Yes, it was a stretch in some ways, but she had checked all the boxes. She had started her own origami business when she was 10-years old. She was the Valedictorian of her class. She loved Pointe and playing piano, yet she was ultimately rejected. Why? Who knows? Sometimes it feels like a crap-shoot. Maybe the college had too many Engineering applicants that year? Maybe a legacy slot had to be filled?

Needless to say, she was devastated, not just in May when she heard the news. Not just over the summer, but even as she was decorating her college dorm room where she had decided to attend. While her final decision was to attend an amazing university in the heart of Boston, it still didn’t feel like her “dream” school. And then something happened. She made a choice to enjoy where she was, and her heart begin to change. She liked being in the city. She liked her professors and the friends she was making. It turned out her new home was the best place for her, and that can be true for other students as well.

Just as the Operation Varsity Blues parents had a choice to resist the underbelly of admissions, so do we. Brennan Barnard writes, “You can choose anxiety, sleeplessness, status, fear, overscheduling, competition, doubt, and resentment or you can choose balance, joy, purpose, mindfulness, empathy, unity, collaboration, meaning, and authenticity. The power is yours—choose wisely.”

Nancy Ling is the Outreach Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the November 14, 2019 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.


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