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Much Ado About Nothing? - Stress and the College Search Sweepstakes

While the challenge of “senior spring” has received ample attention (“The Waiting Game,” “6 Ways to Maximize Spring Semester of Senior Year” and “Already Gone” come to mind), less so may be the rigor of the two semesters that precede it.

Junior spring and senior fall define the circus that has become the college search and application process.
In our haste to best prepare – and position – our children to succeed in the admissions sweepstakes, we're making much ado about everything, including grades, tests, sports, clubs, internships and jobs.

Sound stressful?

A survey by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation identified school, including concerns about college, as a key adolescent stressor (Beacom, 2015). In addition, the 2013 survey of stress by the American Psychological Association revealed that teens are experiencing levels of stress on par with, and in some cases exceeding, adults’ (APA, 2014). During the school year, young people say that their stress levels exceed what even they believe to be healthy. The report also notes feelings of being overwhelmed, sad, depressed and tired. 

“Increasingly, no matter what grade they’re in, students in high school worry about getting into their dream schools, college planning, and finishing their applications before deadline,” stated the article “College Admissions Stress” posted on (2015).

Adding to the tension – and frequent disappointment – are higher education practices of ratcheting up demand to increase stature. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni, in “Promiscuous College Come-Ons,” states, “In our increasingly status-oriented society, a school’s reputation is bolstered by its glimmer of exclusivity and by a low acceptance rate … So, many colleges methodically generate interest only to frustrate it … It’s a cynical numbers game that further darkens the whole admissions process, a life juncture that should be exhilarating but is governed these days by dread” (Bruni, 2014).

Don McMillan, president of the educational consulting firm McMillan, Howland & Spence, says, “Much of the stress upon juniors is generated from peers who anxiously and publicly share their college list – often aiming way too high – rather than keeping this very personal choice confidential, such as the way adults would their salary.”

Parents may unwittingly add to that burden by assuming that the whole process is as simple as it was for them, which it’s not, according to McMillan.

In his Los Angeles Times article “Why the Best Schools Can't Pick the Best Kids – and Vice Versa,” psychology professor Barry Schwartz speaks to the emotional baggage young people bring to the hunt, stating, “… psychologist Suniya Luthar has found that the incidence of anxiety, depression and drug abuse is just as high among children of the affluent as it is among children of the inner city. Why? Luthar found that one significant reason is intense pressure to achieve” (Schwartz, 2007).

It’s no surprise that young people caught up in all things college are self-medicating with drugs, including alcohol. But what may be surprising is that sometimes they’re doing it while on their campus visits.

Data from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and the national SADD organization (Students Against Destructive Decisions) revealed that roughly one in six surveyed teens (16 percent) who had been on an overnight college admissions tour reported drinking alcohol while there (CARE/SADD, 2012). Further, 51 percent of teens who reported drinking during the overnight visit said they had done so for the first time.

Beyond the research, the visits and the risks, there’s THE TEST. Or worse, the tests.

Emma Rich, a junior at Millennium High School in Manhattan and a student member of the CARE National Advisory Board, offers, “In the midst of one of the most chaotic and life-changing years for teenagers, college-bound juniors are further challenged with studying for the SAT. I had trouble with the idea that my accomplishments would be measured by a single standardized test.”

She is not alone.

Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier, in her Boston Globe opinion piece “Ditch the SATs and ACTs,” states that schools ask for standardized test scores “… even though it is well known that the tests do not predict how well students will do in college – much less what they might achieve afterwards.” Guinier goes on to point out, “Instead, the SAT and ACT correlate so strongly with family income that they serve as a proxy for socioeconomic status” (Guinier, 2013).

McMillan, for his part, says, “Students may want to ignore all the tests and go after the lengthening list of Test Optional Colleges. They have come to the sane conclusion that what standardized tests really predict is less academic potential than future success on more standardized tests.”

A third approach was discussed in Douglas Belkin’s Wall Street Journal article “Are You Ready for the Post-College SAT?” In it, he introduces the College Learning Assessment, a measure of the critical thinking skills employers say they are looking for – employers who, he notes, have little faith in grade point averages (Belkin, 2013).

Amid all the stress, some are even reevaluating the utility of the modern-day college experience altogether. For example, in his New York Times piece “College for a New Age,” Joe Nocera quotes Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, from his new book, The End of College. Carey says, “The story of higher education’s future is a tale of ancient institutions in their last days of decadence, creating the seeds of a new world to come” (Nocera, 2015).

Nocera bemoans a lack of focus by colleges and universities on teaching as opposed to research, saying, “… actual teaching, which is what the students – and their parents – are paying for, is scarcely valued at all.” He laments, “There is also the absurd importance of the football team. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent to create an ever newer, ever fancier campus. The outmoded idea that college should cater [only] to students just out of high school …” and the debt of students, which “… now tops $1 trillion.”

Advocating a new way to educate, Carey argues that it’s not essential to have the research infrastructure, football teams and libraries many schools promote in their quest for status. He says that if students paid for only what they need, an education would not cost $60,000 a year (Nocera, 2015).

And some may not actually need it at all.

In “An Open Letter to High School Seniors,” former Bucknell University president Brian Mitchell, Ph. D., director of the Edvance Foundation, argues that college is not for everyone. He says, “In the sputtering economy that characterizes post-recession America, there are still good jobs that do not require a college degree” (Mitchell, 2014). To wit, Jim Hanna, senior director of human resources at the Fluor Corporation, an engineering and construction company, told The New York Times, “For a long time, parents didn’t want their son or daughter to become a pipe fitter or welder, but now, the demand for noncollege graduates with vocational skills is huge” (Cohen, 2015).

What about those who still consider a four-year college education the gold standard?

Jon Meacham, an executive editor at Random House and a visiting faculty member at Vanderbilt University, wrote in his TIME magazine article “What Colleges Will Teach in 2025,” “A survey of recent college graduates commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni … found that barely half knew that the U.S. Constitution ¬establishes the separation of powers. Forty-¬three percent failed to identify John Roberts as Chief Justice; [and] 62% didn’t know the correct length of congressional terms of office” (Meacham, 2013).

He goes on to cite the split between those advocating for knowledge and those for know-how, pointing out that there are many leading figures, including Bill Bennett, Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, calling for change.

A more cheerful portrait of higher ed outcomes can be found in the book Colleges That Change Lives, which chronicles the benefits of 40 schools and offers counsel to high school students searching for the right fit. It includes the skewering of myths such as, “Your college should be bigger than your high school; a name-brand college will give you a better education and ensure your success; a university will offer more than a good small college; you should go where your friends are going; [and] you don’t need to reflect on who you are, what you want, or what the college offers” (Pope; Massell Oswald Ed., 2012).

Rich, for one, knew that those last few count. “My college selection process began with an extensive list of schools that seemed to meet my criteria for a good experience that would allow me to thrive both academically and socially. I know that I really want to attend a college with a rigorous curriculum and a student body that I would enjoy living and studying with.”

Having done her research and consulted her teachers and guidance counselor, Rich, with her parents along for advice and support (and transportation), hit the road during winter break. They visited eight different schools in the Northeast, where Rich prefers to remain. She says, “Interestingly, some of the colleges I expected to love, I was not so thrilled with. At others, I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable I felt on campus.”

She adds, “Academics aside, as they were all strong schools, it came down to vibe. Was there energy on the campus that I could connect to? Was this a program or place that I could envision committing myself to for four years? Now that I have a better sense of what I like and don’t like, my search for a good match will be a little easier.”

While many adults – including those in education – may be weighing questions such as “Is it worth the price?” and “Is it worth the time?” young people like Rich are keenly focused on moving toward the future with optimism about what college holds in store for them.

Thus, for our kids, it's not so much that we make much ado about nothing as that we make much ado about everything.

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2015 All Rights Reserved


American Psychological Association. (2014). American Psychological Association survey
shows teen stress rivals that of adults. February 11, 2014. Stress in America. (11 March 2015).

Beacom, B. (2015). What stresses teens out?. Sutter Health. Palo Alto Medical Foundation. (11 March 2015).

Belkin, D. (2013). Are you ready for the post-college SAT? Employers say they don’t trust grade-point averages. The Wall Street Journal. August 25, 2013. (11 March 2015).

Bruni, F. (2014). Promiscuous college come-ons. The New York Times. November 22, 2014. (11 March 2015).

Campus Explorer. (2015). College admissions stress. How to deal with the stress of college planning. (11 March 2015).

CARE/SADD. (2012). CARE/SADD survey investigates risky behaviors by teens on college visits. Center for Adolescent Research and Education/Students Against Destructive Decisions. May 29, 2012. (11 March 2015).

Cohen, P. (2015). As demand for welders resurges, community colleges offer classes. The New York Times. March 10, 2015. (11 March 2015).

Guinier, L. (2015). Ditch the SATs and ACTs. The Boston Globe. March 9, 2015. (11 March 2015).

Mazzella, R. (2015). The waiting game. TeenLife. February 25, 2015. (11 March 2015).

Meacham, J. (2013). What colleges will teach in 2025. America must resolve the conflict between knowledge and know-how. TIME. September 26, 2013. (11 March 2015).

Mitchell, B. (2014). An open letter to high school seniors. The Huffington Post. October 27, 2014. Updated December 27, 2014. (11 March 2015).

Nocera, J. (2015). College for a new age. The New York Times. March 10, 2015. (11 March 2015).

Pope, L. and H. Masell Oswald. (2012). Colleges that change lives: 40 schools that will change the way you think about colleges. New York: Penguin. 2012. p. 11.

Raposa, M. (2015) 6 ways to maximize spring semester of senior year. USA Today. February 3, 2015. (11 March 2015).

Schwartz, B. (2007). Why the best schools can’t pick the best kids – and vice versa. Los Angeles Times. March 18, 2007. (11 March 2015).

Wallace, S. (2009). Already gone. A parent’s guide to surviving senior spring. Students Against Destructive Decisions. April 6, 2009. (11 March 2015).

Stephen Gray Wallace's picture

Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed., is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing risk. He is a consultant to summer camps on staff training and teen leadership programming and has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. Stephen is a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at