Last winter, I watched my daughter, a high school senior, survive an anxiety-ridden few weeks leading up to final exams, beset with the flu, little sleep and constant studying. With that done, she switched to incessantly monitoring her grades online, fearing that her hopes of becoming a veterinarian ride on these numbers. And I had to ask: Is this what childhood has come to?
As a mother of three, I’ve seen the physical and emotional toll that the soul-bruising college admissions contest takes on our children—and not only on the straight-A types bound for the Ivy Leagues (my daughter is a B student). By the time many students reach high school, their daily routine will include seven or more hours of school, plus two hours of school-sponsored sports or activities, plus the inevitable third shift—three or four or even five hours of homework a night.
We convince ourselves that it’s all for a worthy goal: achieving the magic algorithm of scores and activities that reportedly add up to admission at a top college. But as we’ve encouraged our students to pursue this, we’ve pushed them into unhealthy and unhappy patterns that are harming a whole generation.
A survey released this year by the American Psychological Association found that, during the school year, teens report feeling stress levels even higher than what adults report. Since the 1950s, adolescent suicides have quadrupled, and eating disorders are epidemic. And a 2012 University of Michigan study found that one in 10 high school sophomores and nearly one in eight seniors admitted to using a “study drug” that was not prescribed by a doctor. Another study, in the Journal of Adolescent Health, reported that a vast majority of teens get at least two hours less sleep each night than what’s recommended for their age.
In short, we are raising a generation of chronically sleep-deprived, anxious, caffeine-addled kids who believe that grades, rankings, AP and SAT scores, and—of course—college admissions are the ultimate measure of their worth.
As if that weren’t bad enough, science shows that the consequences of all this stress can be long-term. Sustained high levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones take a toll on the body that lasts into adulthood. A recent paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that the biological impact of sustained stress can include changes “known to be associated with poor health outcomes as diverse as cardiovascular disease, viral hepatitis, liver cancer, asthma…[and] autoimmune diseases….”
This stress also breeds mental harm. The teenage brain is still a work in progress, and the years leading up to adulthood are a critical period during which important functioning undergoes fine-tuning. Yet chronic stress unleashes a cocktail of chemicals that interfere with neuronal networks and inhibit the growth of new neurons. This can also damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Thus, our quest to cram as much intelligence as possible into young brains may actually be producing the opposite effect: stunted cognitive growth and atrophied capacity for deep thought and creativity.
And for what? The all-powerful admissions formulas don’t even measure what really matters. A new study by the former dean of admissions at Bates College looked at a huge sample: more than 100,000 students at nearly three dozen colleges and universities that make standardized test scores optional. The researchers compared the college grades and graduation rates of students who did and did not submit an SAT or ACT score with their application, and found little difference in their success.
We parents are not powerless against college pressures. For starters, we can press high schools to change. Some have outright eliminated advanced placement courses, and their students still get into fabulous colleges. College officials, especially, must hear our call to end the admissions arms race that they helped create. If more institutions not only stopped requiring standardized tests, but also capped the number of advanced courses and extracurriculars counted on applications, they might find that freshmen arrive healthier and more ready to learn.
Most immediately, we can make changes in our homes. We need to remind ourselves that our children’s success as healthy, independent, contributing adults does not hinge on attendance at any particular college. We help our children succeed, in fact, by providing them with a healthy balance of time, space, encouragement, and an emphasis not on the building of resumes but on the discovery of their own interests and values. I have learned, when needed, to turn off my daughter’s light at 10:30 p.m., urge her into bed, and let her know that her health is more important than any exam.