There’s a good reason why yesterday’s article in the Parenting section of The NY Times entitled “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard” is # 1 on the list of most emailed articles. As I’m not a parent quite yet and fortunate to not be experiencing the agony of seeing my own children go though this nightmarish process of self-scrutiny and over-achievement, I feel for those who are, and there are many of them. Although I was in the midst of the college application process only 10 years ago, I breathe a sigh of relief at knowing that somehow I escaped – I was one of the lucky ones who was admitted to a well-regarded small liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, NY based on my prerequisites of being a pretty good kid with great recommendations, a variety of extra-curricular activities, and fairly solid grades. No, I was not published (unless you include our annual high school creative writing publication), nor had I spent summers digging at archaelogical sites in the Himalayas, nor did I spearhead the Northeast chapter of Habitat for Humanity. I didn’t apply to Harvard either, but seeing how much MORE competitive this process has become, I’m pretty sure that there is no possible way that I would have been admitted to the well regarded institution that wanted me 10 years ago, (early decision of course), had I been applying now.
The high achieving students currently applying to US colleges and Universities seem to be of a different breed, and I’m not quite sure what to make of this. While yes, in high school I took a Princeton Review SAT prep class, joined a few extra-curricular clubs – and not out of sheer genuine interest – and had my English teacher, guidance counselor, friends, and family edit my college essay several times before submission, I still had the opportunity to just be a teenager, although that’s easier to claim now than it was then. If the rate of competition has accelerated this quickly in just a decade, what will we be up against in another 10 years, and furthermore, what are we losing as a result of this phenomenon? I have to assume that kids under this type of pressure with adulthood credentials are missing out on the experience of adolesence, which has to have developmental ramifications further down the road.
I give credit to Michael Winerip who spends time meeting with these outstanding candidates to at least give them the glimmer of hope that they deserve. But what most struck me about his process is how he completes each candidate interview, walking each student to the anxiously awaiting parent just to say “You’ve done a wonderful job — you should be very proud.” Perhaps this is the kind of encouragement we need in order to slow down this accelerating (and frightening if you ask me) overly-competitive race. This all makes sense as I realize that this article is not published in the “Education” section of the times, but under “Parenting.” Rather than reflect on how lucky I was to escape the rat race, perhaps I need to focus on making the commitment to become the kind of parent that can do a wonderful job by being proud, no matter what happens.