December 16, 2011

December is a month of celebration. Whether it is because of Christmas, Hanukkah or just having some time off, people across the region experience a rush of activity and excitement. But for many families, another rush injects a much less welcome form of energy into the season: the college application process.

Every year as winter break approaches, moans and groans can be heard all over town. If it were just an unpleasant chore, it wouldn’t bother me so much. But’s it’s much more than that. It is clear that students in this area see applying to college as a high-stakes, make-or-break moment.

They have been preparing for this moment since preschool, and now that they are staring it in the face, they are filled with the fear of rejection. How could they have failed to get straight A’s, score a perfect 2400 on the SATs or accumulate the slews of “extra-curriculars” that win over admissions officers?

In Fairfax County, where I live, one can’t help but lament how the schools encourage such ultra-competitive thinking. In a black-and-white way of looking at things, we have come to believe that only the top-top students succeed by getting in to the college of their choosing. The others? They are left to muddle through and even perhaps — gasp! — go to a community college.

As a mental health provider who works with teenagers, I find it heartbreaking to see the effect of this myth on the psyches of high schoolers. Any doubt about the power of negative thinking is banished by sitting across from a teen whose stomach is in a knot because his or her self-worth is tied to a GPA or wrapped up in the name of a college.

When I first began working with these teens, I was certain that parents and teachers had to have a more temperate, mature view. I wondered how it could be possible that our schools were turning out graduates so achievement-oriented that even their volunteer work was about getting into a good college. Soon, though, it became clear that teachers were culprits, parents were scared to death and children were just as hard on each other as they were on themselves.

In my work, I try with all my might to challenge teenagers’ ways of viewing the process. It isn’t easy. Their dread of failure is only a perception propagated by a distorted view of success. There is no shame in attending Northern Virginia Community College for two years and then transferring to another school. There are smaller schools in and out of state that are also affordable and offer students many alternatives. There is a school for everyone.

As educators, parents, psychologists and counselors, we need to encourage teenagers to do their best for themselves — and often this can mean setting their sights on a good-enough school. The fact of the matter is, no matter what school you attend, you can get the education you desire.