Blaming the Victim for PTSD (Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder)

The “Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success” cartel and the “Turning the Tide” report appear to be student-centered and concerned about alleviating the pressures of applying to college while in fact perpetuating the problems they claim to address. As they promote “access” to college, the cartel proposes a system that will make that access more difficult and fraught with anxiety; while promoting “kindness” and other-directedness in students as an element of college admission, the “Tide” report merely shifts the burden on students from academics to personal behavior while asking little of colleges.

There’s no question that the perception of college admission as getting more and more competitive dominates public awareness of it. Despite the fact that the majority of American colleges and universities accept well over 50% of their applicants, many people believe it’s virtually impossible to get into college. In fact, that’s true of only a handful of colleges and universities whose names are instantly recognizable, but it still drives students’ behavior to a large extent.

This perception also colors the thinking of many involved in advising and caring for students, whether they are privileged or underserved. Even when students apply to less-selective institutions, the fear of not being accepted dominates, exacerbated by press reports about 5% admission rates at high status colleges. For privileged students, those whose parents are college graduates and members of the middle and upper-middle class, the anxiety about college admission can start as early as preschool. Parents look for schools that can put their kids “on track” for rigorous middle and high schools so their children will be ready for the big time. Underserved students, those with few resources or lacking parents with college backgrounds, generally have to wait until they’re well into high school before they learn anything about the college process, and then they become subject not only to the pressures of looking forward but also the regrets of not having had enough information in the first place.

In general, most students applying to college apply to places with decent credentials and acceptance rates within normal bounds. Nevertheless, we still seem to have created an epidemic of another kind of PTSD in high school students: Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This version is the pressure students feel leading up to the trauma of the college application process itself. It is the fear of doing anything wrong, that a B- one semester in calculus will torpedo an application, that too few AP courses will look weak, or that not doing enough community service will look bad. It’s the fear of not looking authentic. It’s an anticipation of evaluation and rejection severe enough to make actual rejection a relief: At least the process is all over; time to celebrate!

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This PTSD distorts students’ behavior, taking them out of the here-and-now and forcing them into an endless cycle of strategizing, second-guessing, and dissatisfaction. As the years go on, it only gets worse. Keeping their eyes on the prize of admission and by extension making it into a world of guaranteed success, students (and their parents) do what’s needed to attain that prize by fair means or foul. Counselors and admission officers deplore that behavior, but in fact students are acting rationally to position themselves as favorably as possible to achieve the prize they seek: Getting an A- in AP U.S. History? Complain to the teacher. Taking AP BC calculus even though you loathe it and want to study literature? Too bad. Forgoing your favorite teacher in fourth-year French for AP physics? Probably a loss either way. Taking six AP’s and trying to letter in three sports? You gotta stand out!

The remedies to situations like these suggested by the “Coalition” and “Tide” seem appropriate on the surface, but they keep the pressure firmly on students, failing to acknowledge colleges’ own role in creating PTSD in the first place. The Coalition recommends that students as young as 9th grade begin stocking online “lockers” with papers, projects, and other items that will supposedly help them define their interests and get them ready for the college process. They also contend that this will give underserved students a chance to learn more about colleges earlier and therefore get a better leg up on the process.

Instead, it sets the starting line earlier for the race to college. It implies that students need to fill their lockers well before they begin their applications to be well-positioned for admission. Privileged students will find ways to stock their lockers with appealing items, while underserved students will once again be left wondering what it all means. Pre-Traumatic Stress begins NOW!!!!!! (But don’t panic…)

In pouring its own oil on the waves, the “Tide” report suggests students be more “authentic” and do more to show how much they care for others in order to be more admissible. It recommends they not overload on APs and go for “quality” over “quantity” in their activities. It even suggests they write essays about any ethical dilemmas they may have encountered as they put their applications together. It focuses almost entirely on student behavior while neglecting to mention the immense rewards colleges promise that drive that behavior in the first place.

All told, these two developments from the past five months do relatively little to change the dynamic between students and colleges on the playing field of college admission. The report does suggest at one point that “Admissions officers and guidance counselors…challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success,” but this is thin gruel compared to what should be recommended, which is that colleges should refuse to participate in rankings schemes. As it stands, guidance [college] counselors routinely do this, often with little result; the onslaught of marketing material and the fetishization of the Ivy League and related institutions overwhelms saner voices.

Telling students to relax or lamenting the “frenzy” that engulfs the college admission process is pointless unless those who abet that frenzy, namely, colleges and universities, face up to their role in it. Pursuing ever-tinier admit rates, ever-larger application numbers, and ever-higher standings in periodical rankings (all of which are connected) drive the perception that it’s almost impossible to get into college, which directly affects prospective applicants’ behavior. Emphasizing “toughest curriculum you can take” as a basis for admission consideration negates any recommendation to students not to overload themselves. Controlling access to a (perceived) scarce resource to drive up its value while blaming people who panic about it as a result does nothing to alleviate it.

Are high status institutions (and those aspiring to be so) willing to accept students with fewer APs and more social consciousness over those with the maximum rigor in their high school’s curriculum? Are they willing to forego SAT and ACT predominance in favor of “authenticity” in students (however that is defined)? Are they willing to say no to U.S. News and all the rest? Are colleges and universities willing to work together in the drive for macro-diversity instead of working only for their own diversity (micro-)? Are they ready to repudiate an Admission Hunger Games environment in favor of something less competitive? When colleges reward students who take the road less traveled instead of the accepted path then we can talk. Until then, they should at least stop blaming their victims.

If high-status institutions of higher education are serious about addressing Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, they must acknowledge their responsibility in its creation and work to mitigate it. Blaming students and families only shifts the blame from where it belongs. It’s neither simple nor easy to undo many years of mythologizing and marketing, but only when institutions themselves take steps to address this PTSD will any real results be forthcoming.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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