I don't remember really worrying about college until the summer after my sophomore year in high school. I was lucky. That's rare and getting rarer as the college admissions game continues to ratchet up the intensity of the process to a level that is threatening to cripple a generation. And it's time for this country's elite colleges and universities to do something about it. Harvard University has begun to acknowledge the problem. In December, the school's admissions office released "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation," a blunt report criticizing what has happened to the admissions process and blaming colleges for an increasing number of freshmen who are burned out from three, four or sometimes eight or 10 years of working toward admission to a top school. Indeed, the report says that between schoolwork and resume building, high-school students don't have time for anything else. And all the things they used to do to blow off steam and relieve stress -- play a sport, dance, play an instrument -- are now done themselves with the goal of helping them get into college. With all the pressures teenagers now face, they don't have a chance to grow up and figure out what they want to do with their lives. "The pace of the day and the year allows little time simply 'to be a kid' -- or, it seems, to develop into a complete human being," the report says. The trend is worrying William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard and the report's co-author. He told The New York Times that, "we think this generation is wonderful in every way, but we worry that unless something changes, we're going to lose a lot of them. Too many of them are going to experience one form or another of burnout, and that would be a tragedy." So what can we do to stop that result? The report puts most of the onus on the students and local school systems. It encourages them to take a year off after high school, to use a summer for recreation and for "old-fashioned summer jobs." It asks state education departments to re-examine the focus of the high school senior year, usually wasted by "senior slump." What can the institutions themselves do? "I'm not sure colleges can do much," says Marylyn McGrath Lewis, Harvard's director of undergraduate admissions and the paper's other co-author. "It seemed to us that we should just say it and get on with our business. If we didn't say what we had observed we would be remiss." But her school and the rest of the Ivy League is remiss if they don't do more. For colleges to deny that they're playing the biggest part in the pressures that students face well before they are old enough to handle it is ridiculous. "It comes down to filling classes," says Peg Cothern, a guidance counselor at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. "[Colleges] are in the business of filling classes, and that is their primary goal. They want to look good for U.S. News." And so they encourage students to apply early by telling them it's more likely they'll get in -- that assures them of the talent they're looking for. They encourage anyone and everyone to apply -- for even if they know a student doesn't have the credentials to get in, rejecting them lowers the admission rate and increases their standing in the eyes of those who determine the college rankings. Students respond to all of that by taking more Advanced Placement classes, doing more mindless community service -- done only to gain the favor of admissions officers -- and spending every free minute doing something they can write a college essay about. We've all been through it. And it does more than burn us out. It's no coincidence that the incidence of binge drinking among high school students is what it is. I'll be honest. I have no idea what colleges and universities should do here. After all, what if they were to explicitly state that they want high school students to take it easy? The result would be that all those college counselors, who prey on the fears of students and their parents, would find new "perfect" formulas for admittance that include summer jobs and fewer AP classes. But it's time for America's elite institutions of higher learning to acknowledge the part they play in what Harvard has admitted is a dire situation, and begin to find ways to clean up their act.Comments powered by Disqus
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