Super-achievers (and your uber-ambitious parents) — take a deep breath, go to the pool, have an ice pop.
Do not take summer research statistics. Do not hire a robotics tutor. Do not start yet another thread on a parenting forum asking for advice on how to get your child into the much-sought-after Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia.
Because the great Harvard-Stanford admissions hoax of 2015 should tell you all you need to know about where Ivy League insanity can lead. And it’s pretty ugly.
The hoax was concocted by a TJ student who claimed that she was so amazeballs brilliant at one of the country’s best public high schools that Harvard and Stanford universities were totally fighting over her.
She said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg called her to persuade her to pick Harvard. (Um, which he never graduated from.) She waved around a letter from a Stanford dean who wrote (in the exact same, cute handwriting as the dean from Harvard, oddly) “Go Trees!” Then the two schools supposedly offered her dual enrollment — two years at one campus and two years at the other.
She was a media darling back home in South Korea, where she became known as “Genius Girl.”
Ouch when it all came crashing down, right?
Her elaborate ruse was uncovered last week, and her dad, who has been described as a tech executive with a South Korean company, issued a poignant apology that acknowledged the pressure cooker that his daughter’s life had become.
“I am sincerely sorry for causing trouble with what is not true,” he wrote, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. “I am deeply repentant that I failed to watch properly over how painful and difficult a situation the child has been in so far and that I even aggravated and enlarged her suffering. . . . From now on, the whole family will live a quiet life, devoting ourselves to getting the child cured well and taking good care of her.”
Our college admissions death struggle has been building for years. Kids are taking the SAT a dozen times, applying to two dozen schools and hiring college admissions coaches for their best shot at an Ivy League welcome letter.
Now add to that madness students from an even more competitive culture 7,000 miles away from the Washington suburbs.
In South Korea, TJ — yes, a public high school in an American suburb — gets rock-star status. The Korean Embassy has the admissions requirements for TJ on its Web site. Preschools near Korean churches advertise that they can help kids get into TJ. There is an entire subculture of Korean parents who establish residency in Northern Virginia — one parent comes, while the other usually stays behind — with the sole purpose of getting their kid into TJ.
South Korea’s college admissions mania makes our homegrown version look like amateur hour.
Students there often have 14-hour school days, and the entire nation’s air traffic is grounded — to keep airspace quiet — on the national testing day for the one, big college entrance exam that can determine a student’s future.
The stories of teen suicides are frequent — it is the leading cause of death among teens in South Korea — and 60 percent of teens said they suffer from chronic, school-related stress, according to a government survey,
(The leading causes of death among American teens are, ranked in order: accidents, homicide and suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
TJ is an impressive place, filled with incredibly smart kids. This year, one of its seniors, Pooja Chandrashekar, made national news by getting into all eight Ivies.
Pooja had a 4.57 grade-point average and near-perfect SAT scores. She founded a national nonprofit group that pushes middle school girls to get into STEM programs, and she developed a mobile app that predicts with 96 percent accuracy whether a person has Parkinson’s disease based on speech-pattern analysis.
“We celebrate the accomplishment of students who get into all eight Ivies,” Brandon Kosatka, TJ’s director of student services, told The Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro last week. “That’s the bar, and our kids are shooting for that. They don’t like to be the second-best. If that’s the bar, then, yes, that creates anxiety for them.”
That’s the bar? Kids are doomed.
The relentless pressure to achieve may be triggering suicides in some of the nation’s highest-achieving areas.
In the Palo Alto school district in Silicon Valley, there were two waves of suicides in the past five years. Most of the teens stepped in front of trains.
In Northern Virginia, suicide clusters among high-achieving high schoolers prompted an investigation by federal health officials.
I was at one of the memorials last year, and the students I talked to all said they, too, feel the crush of school stress. Most get only four or five hours of sleep every night because they’re so laden with homework and scheduled activities.
Here’s the worst part of it, the part that Genius Girl illustrates so perfectly.
This is not about academics. It is not about a monastic love of learning, the dogged pursuit of discovery, the challenge of exploration or the odyssey of the mind.
This entire, whackadoo college admissions obsession is about status.
Genius Girl would have breezed into just about any university in America. And the truth is, most successful Americans did not graduate from an Ivy League school. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg, if you can get him on the phone.
There is no nobility in driving kids to stress, exhaustion, delusional hoaxes and suicide in a craven race for platinum-plated university credentials.
Parents and kids? Lean back, let go and be honest about what it is you’re really trying to achieve. Maybe have an ice pop while you’re at it.