“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only. … I want to die as myself. … I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to … to show the Capitol that they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their games.” — Peeta Mellark, “The Hunger Games”
In 20 years of counseling students, I have witnessed a seismic shift in the approach toward college admission. As application numbers have increased, so has the collective angst around college admission. With sinking admission rates, high-stakes testing, rising tuition costs, unmanageable debt and an unhealthy fixation on the handful of most selective schools, we are debilitating the next generation of learners. The message we inadvertently send: A prestige acceptance is better than a joyful childhood.
In an ideal world, college preparatory education would encourage students who crave knowledge, seek community engagement, desire connection and live their values. We say we want our children to feel secure, be inspired and take risks with their curiosity. The reality of “Hunger Games” comes closer to the truth, where students battle to survive in application pools seeming to demand perfection.
How is such a terrifying metaphor even possible? How did we deteriorate to where the college admission process unwittingly transforms children into warriors who are but shells of their former selves? There is a cruel paradox. Learning is a fundamentally collaborative enterprise (as embodied in elementary school), but this system demands that it be competitive, and that is what destroys the authenticity we say we wish from our children. The apparent victors in this game are the institutions — ever fearful of losing ground to their competitors — driving the competition, and watching as students battle with themselves and others to persevere.
In a race to be the most selective, attract the best students, field the best athletics teams and project a polished image, colleges have lost sight of the best interest of those they wish to serve. National rankings, alumni giving, and exclusivity cause schools to boast about how few students they accept, and how many valedictorians, class presidents, sports captains and school leaders they attract and often deny. Marketing materials and information sessions tout the accomplished musicians, volunteers, world travelers and innovators that fill the colleges’ incoming classes.
The message to students is fundamentally Darwinian: Only the fittest survive, rising to the top in a game to endure an application process that focuses on external perfection rather than internal depth. The cruel logic plays out despite the best intentions of individuals because the system itself is to blame. The more applicants a school can deny and the more accepted students who enroll, the higher ranked a college is. By accepting huge percentages of candidates through early plans, encouraging resumes and flawless transcripts, a system prevails where only the fittest survive the most demanding curriculum available with the fullest schedule while being more unique than the classmates fighting next to them.
It becomes a race for who can grab the rarest opportunity fastest and seemingly juggle it all, risking failure — but not such failure that they will show weakness, vulnerability or breakdown. Frustrated and conflicted, high school counselors and college admission officers are but messengers, gamemakers contractually beholden to the wishes of school boards, trustees, presidents and superintendents who sit at the “Capitol” demanding increased selectivity and prestige in the pursuit of perceived excellence.
Only the most confident and secure students — or perhaps hardened — emerge unscathed, those who despite the pressure and hostile odds, can remain true to their interests, values and sense of self. I have found that the young men and women who thrive in college are those for whom the college search was one of introspection, exploration and personal development rather than a contest. The applicants who focus on fit, program and community as they consider higher education are the individuals who truly find happiness. As parents and educators, we must examine ourselves and what we are doing to the childhood of our kids. Is life so grim, so desperate? Is the future that scary or do we trust that there are many paths to fulfillment, happiness and success?
This is a call to action for students and parents in districts everywhere. Don’t simply wait for the “tide to turn,” join the rebellion. Refuse to play the game and allow it to change you. Don’t become an unrecognizable, packaged “monster.” College campuses have long been instigators of positive social change, and this moment is no different. Whether university investment holdings, campus policy issues or racial inequality, it often takes students unifying against the status quo and speaking truth to power to transform established and damaging practices. This year we have witnessed non-violent student protests effect change at schools as small as Amherst College and as large as the University of Missouri. To initiate change, students and parents must band together and take a stand, declaring:
We will NOT …
… believe that success in life is dictated by only attending colleges with admission rates in the single digits.
… be recruited athletes as ninth-graders and commit to a university before our voice has changed.
… assume obscene debt and be forced to live in our parents’ basement into our forties.
… fill our teenage schedules with activities allowing zero time for purposeless play.
… let flawed, unintelligible rankings determine our college choice.
… sacrifice creative arts courses and other intriguing electives in pursuit of AP everything.
… allow one test, taken too early on a Saturday morning, define us and crush our dreams.
… apply to 20 schools because the admission office has waived the fee and encouraged us to apply.
… search for an Early Decision school just because it increases our odds of acceptance.