by Abby Margolis Newman
Our oldest son is a high school sophomore, so we are still two years away from the college application process, but from what I'm hearing, there is ample reason to start freaking out now.
Anyone who has read anything about the insanely competitive nature of the college admissions in the 21st century will tell you that we would never, in a million years, be admitted today into the colleges from which we graduated decades ago. In fact, a valedictorian with a 4.5 GPA and 2400 SAT's no longer has a surefire ticket into America's most selective colleges.
Ready for some depressing information? My husband has been doing alumni interviewing in the Bay Area of potential applicants for Brown University, from which he graduated in 1987. For the incoming class of 2013, Brown received over 27,000 applications and accepted 2,500 kids (about 9%), for a matriculating class of around 1,350.
Here's the scary part: of those 27,000 kids, more than 2,000 of them had perfect SAT scores in reading and math - and Brown accepted only about 20% of those students. About 1,500 applicants were class valedictorians - and Brown accepted only one of four of these kids.
This atmosphere of almost laughable competitiveness is much worse than 20 years ago, when we were applying to college (OK, so it's closer to 30 years ago, but who's counting?) And the increase in pressure surrounding college admissions has real and lasting consequences for today's high-schoolers. A new documentary by director Vicki Abeles, "Race to Nowhere ," looks at - among many other facets - how this "college application madness" is negatively affecting our kids.
At Yale, the number of acceptance letters sent out to high school applicants has dropped from 20% in 1980 (when there were about 11,000 applying) to 7.5% today (26,000 applicants for an incoming freshman class of about 1,300). Applications have doubled just since 2000, when there were about 13,000 applicants. The situations at Brown and Yale are sadly typical for "highly selective" schools in today's admissions environment. And it's not just the Ivy League schools who are seeing remarkable increases - colleges throughout the U.S. are noting similar surges in applicants.
What does this intense competition - and the crushing disappointment that inevitably follows when many, many students are rejected from these schools - do to today's high-school students? According to "Race to Nowhere ," it can lead to acute stress, paralyzing anxiety, and depression. Not to mention the hours and hours of time required to complete all those applications: the numbers of colleges kids typically apply to has also gone up; wanting to hedge their bets, it is not uncommon for students to apply to ten schools or more. (For some firsthand accounts of life in the college application lane, check out the New York Times blog, "The Choice .")
I watched "Race to Nowhere" at home with my oldest son, Jonah (16), and my middle son, Aaron (15), who is a freshman. The kids in the film described the pressure they felt to get perfect grades, perfect SAT's, just to keep up with intensifying standards for college admission. Aaron matter-of-factly observed, "It's a competition with people you don't even know, who you will never know, who don't even know that you exist - and you're fighting for no other reason other than people are telling you to fight." 
Wow. How did a 15-year-old kid become so cynical so fast? And this is exactly the problem "Race to Nowhere " tries to address: how do you get kids to slow down, to resist the urge to compete for competition's sake, to think about what truly interests them, to pursue a path toward something they will love to do? The film illustrates the pressure-cooker environment of many 21st century high schools - and the result is countless burnt-out seniors who have learned how to "do" school but have forgotten how to love learning.
"You need to go toward the things you love from the beginning," Jonah observed. "If you're doing everything in high school and college because it 'looks good,' you're going down a path and you'll never get to do anything you love."
It seems so simple, right? But as Abeles's film shows, many of America's high schools - and the cultural elements surrounding them, from administrators to college counselors to SAT "coaches" to parents - are contributing to an atmosphere of severely high expectations, resulting in some very negative consequences for our children. Yes, it's hard not to get caught up in the college admissions race... but not at the expense of your child's happiness and mental health.
So, when Jonah cracks open those application packets senior year -- or, more likely, fills them in online -- I'll have to learn to take deep, yogic breaths and to let him realize his own path toward happiness and fulfillment. I'm sure it will do wonders for my mental health too.
Also on Mommy Tracked:
The Pressure for School Success 
Cheating on Homework to Get Ahead in Life 
Extra Credit or Extra Stress?