Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Stress of Trying To Get Ahead



All week, I have been writing my senior students letters of appeals to universities that refused them. It has not been a pleasant process.

Along the way, I have listened to a number of stories about why they wish to appeal their lack of acceptance. Most of the time, it has to do with parental pressure.

The first question I ask a student who wishes to appeal his selected university’s decision is “Where were you accepted?”

Many times, the answer is something like, “UC Santa Cruz,” or “UC Riverside.” The look on the kid’s face is one of embarrassment. I try to make him feel better. Gaining admission to any University of California campus is an achievement. So why is this student not happy with the result? The parents want him to be accepted at UCLA. Friends of the family have children who were accepted at UCLA, and they cannot save face if their child is not similarly accepted.

One parent told his daughter, “What will I brag about if you do not get into UCLA?”

For my students, UCLA or USC are enviable options because they are first rate schools and close to home. A student could commute and would not have to move away. Coming from a private school environment, many parents and students are loathe to step outside that sheltered world. Moving away from home to a public university represents a huge step. I would argue it is a necessary step.

The other aspect I noticed this week is the shame that accompanies where a student was accepted or not accepted. Our college counselor came to my class and ask the students to write their names on a card with all the schools where they were accepted. The principal would be attending a Board of Trustees meeting that evening and he wanted to give a preliminary report. The students panicked. “Who is going to see this?” they asked. “Is this going to be published somewhere?” “Is this going in the parent newsletter?” The counselor had to reassure them that it was only for administrative purposes right now, however it might be published later. We have published the information in previous years, but often with just the university name and number of students from our school that were accepted. Still, I could not believe the looks of panic on their faces. They were deeply concerned.

After the counselor left, I tried to discuss this with them. They told me the competition and bragging rights were out of control. Parents could not face other parents unless their children were accepted to the right schools. After class, many students told me privately that seniors were actually taunting each other over acceptances and refusals. This had turned young people who had been on friendly terms for years into bitter enemies. In addition to the normal spring malaise and “senioritis,” they were all fed up with each other and the respective attitudes.

In the middle of this turmoil, the principal dropped off the latest report of SAT scores. As I perused the results, I noticed that many of my students who did not get into the colleges of their choice had low SAT scores. Although schools now use a holistic system of admissions, I think their scores might be low for admissions to a UC campus. Some of my students who gained admissions to say, UC Riverside, were actually lucky to have been admitted at all. Obviously, the school was moved by the student’s essay, their grade point averages, or resume of activities.

In the end, I tried to reassure my students and calm the frictions, as well as ease the shame. Life unfolds as it unfolds; we must all make do with the circumstances we are handed. One can get a good, or bad, education anywhere. Sure, having a certain school’s name on a diploma might open some doors, but the acceptance process is beyond the student’s control. All she can do is her best. If the admissions committee chooses someone else, a student must move on and deal with the consequences. Many of my students are trying to do just that, but there are the parental and community pressures and stresses with which to deal.

This is a monumental moment in these kids’ lives. They are about to venture out into the world, the next phase of the drive to maturity. They should be supported. They need to be strong and confident, not ashamed of the fact that they were accepted at Cal State Northridge but not UCLA.

Parents need to realize that their children will make them proud, and disappoint them, throughout their lives. That is one of the frustrations of being a parent. But it is the child’s life. They need the space to be successful and yes, make mistakes and learn to live with the consequences. Stop trying to shelter them. Stop trying to live your life vicariously through them. Encourage them to never give up, to always put their best foot forward, and when disappointments come, to keep on fighting and make the best of a bad situation. There is a reason they call it “strength in the face of adversity.”

In short, let them be human beings, fallible and flawed, yet capable of so much greatness. Let them travel the road they are given. Tell them you are proud of them, and they have your love and support. Most of all, give them the chance to live their lives and find their way. It is the most parental thing we can do.