Getting to college today involves a different process than it did a generation ago. Decent grades and a written essay no longer are enough. Students are judged on high academic achievement as well as extracurricular activities and community service. Many colleges boast that they only consider students from the top 10 percent of their class.
These high expectations have raised the stress levels of young teens dramatically. In fact, as many as one in 10 kids suffers from an anxiety disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Kids start thinking about college admission in middle school because they need to start preparing an exceptional academic and extracurricular resume. They obsess about getting A minuses versus A’s, joining clubs that look good on an application and taking the ACT exam several times—at the same time they are trying to manage the physical and emotional challenges of adolescence.
Increasing achievement pressure on kids can actually hinder their ability to get ahead. A teen who gets into Harvard but picks up an anxiety disorder along the way isn’t headed for success.
Here are some strategies to help kids prepare for college without jeopardizing their health:
• Realize the importance of emotional health for success in life.
Help your child understand that success and happiness are determined by more than their GPA or paycheck. There are many brilliant, well-educated professionals who can’t function well in society. The ability to sustain loving relationships, the courage to stand up for what one believes and the strength to bounce back from misfortune are just a few life skills that cannot be bought with a six-figure income. Help them to see college and career as an important part of their future—but not the only path to success.
• Explain the pitfalls of perfection.
Studies show that perfectionists are actually less productive than those who can accept imperfection and get the job done. While the perfectionist is still struggling to get her first project perfect, the hard worker is on her second project with a very good one already complete.
Encourage your teen to invest in his passions and strengths instead of “shoulds.” If he loves cooking but joins the economics club because it will look better on his college application, he may end up sitting in the back of the room during meetings, doodling and feeling like a misfit. The sponsoring teacher will know him as the kid who didn’t participate.
If he joins the cooking club, he will participate well, maybe come up with his own recipes and even be elected president of the club or receive an award. His successes will increase his self-confidence and leadership skills. That sponsoring teacher will describe him as hard working, creative and a leader. When asked about his activities in a college interview, he will describe one with a yawn and the other with enthusiasm and pride.
• Invest limited time and energy wisely.
Investigate the details of your teen’s dream for the future. If she has her heart set on becoming a veterinarian, do some informational interviews with local vets and find out what most helped them achieve their goal. Was it the school they graduated from? Their grades? Their experience? A connection in the field? If most claim their college GPA was the biggest factor in landing a job—no matter what school they graduated from—then the pressure to get into a highly competitive school is lessened. If the key factor was the amount of volunteer experience they had with animals, then that is where your child’s energy should go.
• Maximize the options.
If your teen wants to work in the medical field, have him think about all possibilities. Does he want to be a heart surgeon (highly specialized, must be top in the field), or would he be happy as a nurse (wide-open field, especially for males), a physician’s assistant (high-paying career requiring less schooling) or a medical biller (good salary, certificate program or on-the-job training). Exposing your child to more options can reduce achievement pressure.
• Teach your teen to organize his time.
Even the best students need help in this area. Lack of organizational skills cause a teen to put things off until the last minute and to feel overwhelmed. To give adequate attention to everything on his plate, he needs to learn how to set priorities and schedule his time. Teach him to use a calendar, activity planner or Palm Pilot. (Just handing it over doesn’t mean he will know how to use it effectively.) Help him learn to plan ahead and work in small steps to keep him from becoming overwhelmed and shutting down.
• Schedule down time.
Your young teen needs time to recharge or she will burn out before she even gets to college. Help her schedule at least 15 to 30 minutes each day when she doesn’t have to be thinking or be rushing. Teach your child to practice relaxation as a tool for creating a balanced and successful life.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 21 and 25. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.