Students Are Stressed About Where They Go to School, But Research Shows That’s Not the Only Thing That Matters for Success

Posted By Derek Johnson on August 14, 2015 at 10:27 am
Students Are Stressed About Where They Go to School, But Research Shows That’s Not the Only Thing That Matters for Success

Getting into college – not to mention the “right” college – is a stressful process. And society feeds this pressure cooker mentality as students are frequently taught (by parents, teachers and university officials) that the college admissions process is a watershed moment in their lives. Getting accepted to an Ivy League or other top-tier school is often presented as the one choice that will define whether a person goes on to have a successful life and career – or “settle” for a life of second-best.

This stress can often yield unsettling consequences. A recent example can be found in a story reported last month about a high-achieving high school student at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia. The student told her peers that both Harvard and Stanford University wanted her so much, they agreed to an unprecedented arrangement that would allow her to attend both schools, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally called her cell phone in an attempt to recruit her to Harvard.

Needless to say, the entire story turned out to be a hoax. And while the student and her family have declined to be interviewed, a letter her father wrote to a Korean media outlet sheds some light on the circumstances. In the letter, he apologizes for failing to understand how “painful and difficult” his daughter’s experience has been and acknowledges the role he has played in in “aggravat[ing] and enlarg[ing] her suffering.”

Another clue can be found in a quote from the high school’s director of student services, regarding how the school measures success.“We celebrate the accomplishment of students who get into all eight Ivies,” said Brandon Kosatka, TJ’s director of student services, to the Washingtin Post. “That’s the bar, and our kids are shooting for that. They don’t like to be the second-best.”

The message being sent is clear: anything less than perfection is not worthy of note or praise. And if it turns out that the student in question did fabricate her admissions results due to the stress and pressure of meeting expectations, it’s likely she was not alone in her struggle.

More stress for students


Source: The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA

The American Freshman Survey, which tracks a variety of statistics related to graduating high school seniors, found that students are studying more and socializing less. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the survey also found the lowest percentage of students reporting good emotional health since the survey started tracking the statistic. One-third of all incoming college freshman also reported that they feel overwhelmed by all they have to do.

However, the evidence that getting into a top-name university automatically leads to success is questionable at best. A pair of studies conducted by Princeton researchers in 2002 and again in 2011 found that students with similar grades, SAT scores and backgrounds who did not attend Ivy League schools tend to earn as much money in the professional world as those who did. There were two notable exceptions: students from low-education households, and racial and ethic minorities. The researchers believe these students bucked the trend because for them, Ivy League schools “provide access to networks for minority students and for students from disadvantaged family backgrounds that are otherwise not available to them.”

A new book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, uses a mix of anecdotal and scientific evidence to further discredit the Ivy League myth. Bruni castigates what he calls “college admissions mania,” where students are taught that attending selective schools is the defining choice in their life.

In reality, Bruni argues, it is usually other factors that have far more of an impact on whether or not you succeed. Qualities like resilience in the face of failure, good networking skills and being able to get the most out of the educational resources available to you are all more important to success than the name of the school on your diploma. Bruni casts a wide net, blaming schools who manipulate the admissions process to make their university appear more selective, as well as parents who buy into the perception.

“We somehow bought that this moment in late March-early April when you find out where you’re going to go to school sets the whole trajectory for your life, and it’s so untrue and the source of so much unnecessary anxiety,” Bruni told PBS.

In an interview with The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz, author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life”, argues that our education system places too much importance on getting into selective universities, and too high of expectations on students. What’s more, it perverts the way students view charity work and public service, which are treated primarily as a way to pad their resume rather than an opportunity to help others or achieve personal satisfaction or fulfillment.

“These students are made to understand that they have to be perfect, that they have to do everything perfectly, but they haven’t turned to themselves to ask why they’re doing it,” Deresiewicz told The Atlantic. “It’s almost like a cruel experiment with animals that we’re performing – every time the red light goes on, you have to push the bar. Of course they’re stressed.”

That mentality eventually seeps into the family unit, as parents reinforce this mindset at home, withholding approval when a child’s grades slip.

“[W]hat you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail…the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless,” said Deresiewicz.

What can be done

While some colleges are obviously more prestigious than others, for many students, it’s going to college at all that matters. Parents, high school counselors and college administrators alike need to remember that admission at a top-tier university doesn’t guarantee success – any more than attending a public university or community college precludes it. Throughout the application and admissions process, parents need to remember to keep their child’s health and well-being a top priority.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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