Enduring the Admissions Arms Race at a Competitive High School

Question: I attend an uber-competitive high school in California and everything is SO harsh and stressful — it's such a competitive environment that friendships are actually broken up because of college admissions pursuits. Personally, I pursue what I'm passionate about — but I'm definitely not the best in those fields. I know many of my classmates hate what they do, yet they are extraordinarily accomplished because their parents push them to work so hard. How can college admissions officers tell what you're actually passionate about versus what your parents have pushed you to do? I feel that it's unfair that the people who hate what they do are often admitted to much more prestigious colleges…

Many college admission officers like to insist that they can distinguish between passion and pressure. That is, they claim that they can tell—via essays or sometimes interviews—if an applicant is excited about his or her pursuits or simply acquiescing to parental edicts.

But, personally, “The Dean" feels that this isn't always true and that the snootiest of colleges will still—at least in most cases—favor the candidate with a weighty AP load rather than the one who takes some of the most rigorous classes but also saves time in the school day for personal favorites such as sculpture or culinary arts. But unless that kid is clearly the next Auguste Rodin or Julia Child, then electing a “Very" but not “Most" Demanding curriculum can hurt at elite-college admission time, even if the college brochures and info sessions suggest otherwise. It may not be at all “fair" that students who gag as they sign up for heinous classes and activities end up with good news from sought-after colleges, but that's only if you can't see beyond prestige when making those college choices in the first place.

As a parent of a son who is now a college sophomore, I never bought into the admissions arms race. I wanted my child to take classes that challenged him but I also wanted him to take those that interested him, even if they wouldn't make admission officials turn cartwheels. Ultimately he was admitted to the one Ivy League school he applied to but was denied by two other highly selective schools. He also won a full ride (the Stamps Leadership Award) at Tulane, where he is now enrolled and which was one of his top two picks since he first visited. Although he worked pretty hard in high school, I think he would tell you that he avoided the pressure-cooker environment that you describe, largely because we never subscribed to the Ivy-or-bust mindset that may prevail where you are. When we started visiting campuses in his junior year, I urged him to focus on what he actually saw, heard, and liked on each one and not only on its reputation. As a result, he was able to distinguish between the places that seemed like good fits to him and those that had snazzy names but never felt quite right.

So my advice to you is to continue to do what you want to do. If you do it well, you will have plenty of college options and maybe some sweet merit scholarships. Even if Harvard and Princeton don't roll out the welcome mat for you (and perhaps they will), you should still be able to find schools you like where you can follow your heart and explore new areas as well. And your four undergraduate years will go fast. If you're doing what excites you and you're not at the most competitive colleges in the universe, you should be able to position yourself well for acceptance at a top-choice grad school or for some plum internships while you're in college and maybe even a dream job when you're done.

I realize it's nearly impossible to ignore the college admissions frenzy that surrounds you, but if you devote some effort to seeking colleges that sound exciting and that accept students who are strong but not necessarily perfect in every way, you will have a saner more stress-free finish to your high school career and you won't be like too many teenagers these days who are already burned out before they move into their freshman dorm. If you want some help identifying places that fit the bill, write back. I will direct you to a College Karma Stats Evaluation done by a former Smith College colleague of mine, Ann Playe. It costs $150 but you will get a ton of bang for your buck and, hopefully, an escape from the toxic environment around you.