To Parents and Students:
My name is Spencer Yen, I grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from Columbia University earlier this year. When I graduated from high school in 2016, I remember feeling excited for the year 2020. I saw 2020 as the year I would be celebrating my college graduation with family and friends, watching the Olympics, and traveling around the world. I imagine you also had plans for 2020 that were upended.
2020 has been anything but what we expected. A global pandemic brought the world to a standstill and continues to keep us inside our homes. Racial justice protests erupted across the country. Wildfires blanketed the West Coast in smoke. A record-high number of people voted in this year’s election, amid a pandemic. There’s that line from Vladimir Lenin, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
I believe that every situation has positives as long as you have a positive attitude. While I wasn’t able to celebrate with my friends, I have been fortunate to spend time at home with my parents and older sister. Being at home has given me time to sit down, slow down, and look back on how I got here. When I first got home in March, I took a walk with a friend around our deserted high school campus. We serendipitously ran into my former history teacher, and with masks on and distance, caught up briefly.
“Have you guys seen the new student center and wellness center?”
He showed us a renovated building that was converted into a student center complete with whiteboards and high top tables, along with a wellness center with dedicated mental health counseling rooms. It felt surreal – the familiar becomes unfamiliar. I was reminded of all the mental health and student stress conversations from when I was in high school. I was reminded of stressing over the SAT, the ACT, AP classes, extracurriculars that would “look good”, volunteering, all while trying to find a sense of identity in the social hierarchies of high school. I was reminded of what it felt like to grow up in the competitive and oftentimes toxic environment that is the Bay Area.
Let’s take a step back and think about the big picture. How did we get here?
There’s a complex, intersectional, multilayered answer, and there’s a simple answer. For the STEM inclined, Occam’s razor tells us that the simpler explanation is more likely to be correct. Here’s the simple answer: We all just want to succeed.
I genuinely hold the politically correct view that success should be defined by each and every individual, and there is no objective “better” or “worse”. But let’s be honest. When you or your child are in high school, that definition of success is rather narrow. Success is defined by getting into a good college.
“My son is currently at Columbia.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel good about myself every time I or someone mentions where I went to school. I’m sure my parents also feel proud. I don’t intend to sound pretentious, rather, I want to be honest about what I think many people think but don’t say out loud. What’s that one "school in Boston” that all these famous and accomplished people went to?
When success is defined by getting into a good college, the question on the top of our minds is: How do you get into a good college? I’ll give you the secret:
Take as many AP classes.
Get a perfect SAT score.
Win the science fair/math competition/debate tournament/business conference
Complete 100 hours of community service.
Start a non-profit/company.
Find your passion.
Start a movement.
Change the world.
I’m only half-joking – I’m sure you are familiar with some of these expectations of achievement. The problem with these expectations of achievement is that they are never-ending and continuously exacerbate a high-pressure environment. Many stakeholders in higher education have recognized the negative impact of achievement pressure. The former Dean of Freshman at Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Haims, gave a TED talk on the harms of a “checklisted childhood”. Former Yale faculty member William Deresiewicz calls my generation “excellent hoop-jumping sheep,” referring to how students see each task or achievement as a hoop to jump through. It’s a systemic issue of college admissions, and over the last several years, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has organized all elite institutions to get behind a message promoting greater ethical character and community engagement than excessive academic and extracurricular achievement pressure.
“The college admissions process is powerfully positioned to send different messages that help young people become more generous and humane in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves. Yet high school students often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities.”
Harvard’s Turning the Tide Report
If you’re like me, you might generally agree with these sentiments that this high-pressure environment is not great. But to get into college, I still had to play the game. I had to check things off a checklist and jump through hoops. Any meritocracy will have achievement pressure, whether that be evaluated through a single test or through a “holistic” application.
But how much is too much when Bay Area students are tragically taking their own lives and rates of depression continue to increase? I know mental health holds a stigma among certain communities, but this is not just about mental health. The much less visible problem is with the spirit of my generation. When I was in high school, the “prize” was Stanford and the like. When I was in college, the “prize” was McKinsey and the like. I know in a couple of years, the prize will be Harvard Business/Law/Medical School and the like. What is the identity of my generation, a generation of hoop-jumping sheep who only know how to chase and win the next prize, a generation who grew up with overscheduled lives and a limited worldview and a lack of responsibility for others? I’m generalizing, but you get the point.
A common answer I’ve heard in response to the problem of student stress caused by college admissions is something along the lines of: “you don’t have to go to a good college”. While I agree with this sentiment, I know that it usually falls on deaf ears. It is nearly impossible to fight against our natural desire to succeed. Since you’re reading this, I assume that either you or your child cares about college admissions.
I believe that there’s a way to excel during high school without burning out. I believe there’s a way you can “optimize” your college admissions chances without being controlled by the checklists and hoops that we mentally create from gossiping about other “success stories”. I believe there’s a way to do this all while developing your creativity, humility, ethical responsibility, gratitude, and sense of self-identity.
Seek to succeed on your own terms, and college admissions should be a byproduct. Don’t try to game the system. There are no checklists for college admissions; there’s a reason why not every valedictorian goes to Harvard. If you’re doing something for the sake of your college application, and your results are not as you expected, then you’ll feel like you wasted that time. Instead, you should spend your time doing what you want to do, and if your admissions results are not as you expected, you still spent your time doing something meaningful.
How can you do this? Personally, I’m an advocate for project-based exploration and learning. High school is a time for exploration and curiosity, and I think there is no better way to do that than identifying something you might be interested in and going for it. You don’t need a summer program to learn or do something. As Picasso said, “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”
The systemic forces of college admissions are like a flowing river. As I learned the hard way during a college whitewater kayaking trip, the answer is never to paddle against the flowing current. Rather, you should first accept and understand the conditions you’re in. Then, you can position yourself in the direction that you want to go in, and let the forces of the river guide you there.
Thank you for reading, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org