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Reframing the race to college admissions

Since its release about a year ago, the documentary Race to Nowhere has caused a sensation everywhere it has been screened. The film highlights the stress felt by children with college aspirations as they progress through school.

The 85 minute presentation is structured primarily as a series of interviews with teenagers, parents, teachers, school administrators, coaches, and adolescent psychologists, all of whom agree that the intense pressure on kids to build impressive resumes in and out of the classroom has warped young lives to such an extent that many feel exhausted and depressed. The stark message of the film is that for those on the college prep track the American educational system is broken at the juncture between quantity and quality-too much work that has too little meaning in both the academic and extra-curricular realms.

For many of those viewing Race to Nowhere at Lake Oswego High School on March 10, this theme struck a raw nerve. The discussion period following the film was given over, for the most part, to personal stories expressing the same range of feelings as presented in the movie: depletion and emptiness, frustration and anger, shock and alarm, concern and empathy.

What to do? At the start of the discussion period, five panelists offered various perspectives, and at the end LOHS principal Bruce Plato reassured everyone that faculty and administrators were keenly aware of the severe and often debilitating pressures felt by students but noted, as well, that the issue defies easy solution as long as the high school's program must meet multiple needs, including a dynamic college prep program.

Unfortunately, the situation can't be entirely resolved when college admissions dictates central elements of the school's program. Pressure is baked into that kind of a system because admissions officers are looking specifically for applicants who have distinguished themselves by outperforming the competition in all the usual ways - in AP or IB classes, on standardized testing and through noteworthy accomplishments outside the classroom. Thus, in an ambitious college prep environment, it's all too easy for students to feel pressured to achieve beyond their capacities or to overload themselves in and out of the classroom or to feel externally driven rather than internally motivated - all of which produce unhealthy stress.

Still, even if schools that send lots of graduates off to college each year did have the option of eliminating pressure on students, that wouldn't be desirable either since challenge is a natural spur to growth. The goal, rather, is to create an atmosphere of healthy stress, in which individuals learn how to stretch themselves in order to enlarge capacities without exceeding their limits at any given point.

Although this might sound like the educational approach of most schools, it differs in spirit from the traditional college prep program. For the latter, under pressure from college admissions, emphasis falls on beating the competition - in the race to win a coveted spot at a selective institution.

When students feel as if their lives are organized around the effort to get noticed for having achieved ahead of others, they devote the better part of their energies to improving their rank in this or that hierarchy: academic standing in the classroom, accomplishment on the playing field, chair position in the orchestra, officership in student government, and so on. When that enormous expenditure of energy fails to produce the desired result, young people feel as if they have engaged in 'a race to nowhere.'

This problem derives less from the way school programs are structured and more from habits of thought that define individual success only in terms of doing better than someone else. Instead of fostering a culture of intense competition, schools would do better to encourage a sense of self-efficacy, in which individuals are pushed hard in all of the usual ways but always with a focus on self-awareness, improvement and empowerment.

This kind of reframing doesn't abolish the notion of competition but does translate it into a psychologically healthy attitude by fortifying each student's sense of evolving competence with an emphasis upon personal mastery rather than comparative performance. The result is robust achievement and, equally important, the happiness associated with inner motivation.

Tim Cantrick is an independent college counselor assisting families in Lake Oswego and throughout the greater Portland area. For more information visit www.cantrickcollegeadvising.com.