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High Achievers: What Price Are They Paying?

A Harvard Interviewer's Honest Assessment
They come to me with SATs pushing 1600 and more awards than military heroes. The valedictorians. The student leaders. The super-jocks. They are applying to Harvard. They are the children you want your kids to become.

For the past 17 years, I've been an alumni interviewer for Harvard. As part of its admissions process, Harvard extends applicants an opportunity to meet with one of its alumni. To personalize the process. To allow its applicants to "come alive," apart from their strategically packaged portfolios.

Acknowledging that most teens walk into these interviews with understandably heightened anxiety, my initial focus is on helping them exhale their fears and worries about impressing me. "We're here so that Harvard can get to know you a little better. There are no right or wrong answers. We're just going to chat for a while," I offer calmly.

I try to get beyond their Miss America-like, rehearsed responses -- "Harvard is the best environment available for me to pursue my pre-medical studies." I'm looking for clues as to whether they'd make considerate roommates, inquisitive scholars, and generous contributors to Harvard's community. Most often, these frightened, pressured high-achievers have trouble finding their own voice. Instead, I hear them speak in the boilerplate, programmed, success-oriented words of their parents, teachers and college coaches.

Running on Empty
He listed cross-country as a sport he took up in his junior year. No athletic endeavors had preceded his high-school running. I asked John* (all names have been changed) what had drawn him to distance running and why he came to pursue it his junior year. He replied matter-of-factly, "My guidance counselor told me it would look good on my transcript if I had a sport. He said that colleges looked for well-rounded kids and that I needed something like a sport to look better for colleges. Time was running out and my junior year was the last year I could get a sport in before I sent in my applications. I joined cross-country because everyone makes it who tries out." "Do you like running? Does it give you pleasure?" I hoped. "No," was his hollow reply.

Peter had scored two 800s on his SATs and was recognized as a National Merit Scholar. As we spoke of his favorite high-school classes, I asked whether he had ever challenged any of his English teachers' opinions in class. Looking down at the floor, he spoke softly. "Sure, I used to disagree lots of times. I mean, there's no absolute right answer when it comes to knowing whether an author was using her own life or not as the basis for the main character, right? But every time I'd disagree with this teacher or our textbook's opinion I'd end up getting marked down for it. So I learned it's better to tell teachers what they want to hear so you'll get a better grade." Sadly, there was no anger or disappointment in his voice.

Sarah, class valedictorian and winner of numerous, prestigious math and science awards, spoke with a dull and disembodied affect about her academic triumphs and her future, "Math and science have always been easy for me. I don't like them nearly as much as literature but they're what I do best. I guess I'll major in them in college, get a graduate degree in them and then get an engineering job and get married. That's what my parents (survivors of Cambodia's killing fields) expect. They want me to get an engineering job and to get married as soon as I get my graduate degree. I hope that I can save up enough money so that I can retire early, like in my 50s, and travel." Sarah was 17, a broken sparrow, dying to be middle-aged.

Stressed for Success
Heard enough? I have. Over the past two decades, the children I've interviewed have become progressively more packaged for success. They've been advised, scared, and professionally coached into believing that school's only purpose is to get the grades that will gain them admission into an elite college. College must then result in a degree that translates into a high-paying job and a secure financial future. That's the plan. The only plan. It's no wonder that a recently released American Council on Education survey of more than 348,000 college freshmen reports that, "Academic credentials, rather than a love of learning, seem to be their motivation." Shame on us all.

We begin telling kids by eighth, or ninth grade, "It all counts now! Every grade, every sports performance, every activity in or out of school. You're building your permanent record for college. It's time to get serious." As one student explained, "The big transcript worries start freshman year and your whole future is pretty much determined by the end of junior year in high school." We actually start scaring them much earlier than middle school. I've got a list of third-and fourth-grade therapy clients who have seen me for school-related stress to prove it.

Free to Be
So how do you raise kids to be high achievers without their suffering anxiety, dread, and abject resignation? Stop hurrying and stealing their childhood, structuring and scheduling their every waking moment; read or re-read David Elkind's prophetic, cautionary, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Perseus Books, 1988). Don't frighten them into believing in and following your master plan for academic and career success. Begin telling them as preschoolers that you love and admire them for who they are, not for the grades and achievements that they bring you. Encourage their own natural academic and extracurricular interests, regardless of whether they are deemed portfolio-advisable by costly college "handlers." Urge them to volunteer and to serve others and do so together -- as part of your family's values, not because it will look good on their college transcripts. In short, love and support them as they challenge and search for themselves, fulfill their dreams and become the people they choose to be.

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