I belong to several college counseling trade organizations and chat frequently with colleagues from around the world. I often comment that I feel fortunate to be in Portland, Oregon, where the stress level and competitiveness related to college admissions seems to be less intense than on the east coast and in California. Yes, we have amazingly talented and aspirational students in Oregon, but I rarely experience any cut-throat attitudes from my students or find parents placing huge pressure on students regarding prestigious colleges. Most parents and students I work with simply want to find a great college that is an academic, social, emotional, cultural and spiritual match--whether that be a small liberal arts college, a large research university, a highly selective Ivy League school, a college that balances academics and faith, or a performing arts conservatory.
I was quite shaken this morning upon reading a NY Times article about teenagers abusing prescription stimulants in seeking an academic edge. I naively want to think that this doesn't happen here in Portland, but I realize that it does. This raises a moral question for me. Am I inadvertently contributing to pressure that encourages students to choose risky behavior in order to please significant adults or reach an end goal (higher test scores, prestigious college admissions)? I hope not, yet I realize that what I say to students may be heard and interpreted in ways I do not intend.
My college coaching practice emphasizes lowering the stress of an inherently stressful process. This is achieved through a broad range of tactics, some of which include demystifying the application process, spreading out the tasks over a long period of time, encouraging students to explore their interests and potential careers through job shadows and internships, and increasing writing skills (which helps in college as much as it does for writing college application essays). Still, does that fact that a student's family is investing in college counseling send a message to that student that the outcome is what counts most?
How does a family measure the success of working with a college counselor? Ideally, that success is evident years later after the student has successfully become independent, made life-long friends, graduated from her chosen university, found meaningful work she is equipped to do, and become a person that parents admire for her values and actions. I hope that success is not being measured by the number of high profile colleges the student was admitted to, and I sincerely hope that students don't resort to drugs to "help" them along the way.