Harvard to Applicants: Chill!

How often does the admissions staff of an elite university advise prospective applicants that they "are not judged simply by the number of AP or other advanced credits amassed at the end of senior year"...

How often does the admissions staff of an elite university advise prospective applicants that they "are not judged simply by the number of AP or other advanced credits amassed at the end of senior year" and counsel that "students who can reduce stress...arrive at college much better prepared to take full advantage of their first year"? In a sign that, for some competitors, the current meritocratic free-for-all has gone too far, Harvard's undergraduate admissions website now offers--along with application forms and financial-aid information--"Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation" (http://admis.fas.harvard.edu/timeoff.htm).

The essay, presented at a College Board conference last fall, received front-page coverage in the New York Times in early December, not least because of its authors: William R. Fitzsimmons '67, Ed.D. '71, dean of admissions and financial aid; Marlyn McGrath Lewis '70, Ph.D. '78, director of admissions; and Charles P. Ducey, Ph.D. '75, director of the College's Bureau of Study Counsel, which helps undergraduates face academic and personal problems. Beyond the authors' professional perspectives, the paper draws on their academic training--in sociology, literature, and psychology, respectively--to address the downside of an era of opportunity in which many students thrive on academic pressure, the drive to achieve, and specialization (academic, athletic, or artistic) from a very early age.

Acknowledging that "selective colleges are perceived to be part of the problem" of excessive competition and "burnout," the authors depict a larger issue stemming from the now life-long pursuit of the "right" credentials for career and economic success. "The chase for the prize begins early," they write, practically in utero: they give examples of infant enrichment, "educational" toys, and expensive consultants who prep children "to maintain eye contact in the interview and to demonstrate both leadership and sharing during the observed play sequence"--for pre-kindergarten admissions. Tutoring follows, and professional afternoon, weekend, and summer instruction in sports, at the expense of dinners together and family vacations for no purpose beyond relaxation. Little time is left "simply 'to be a kid'--or, it seems, to develop into a complete human being." In middle and high school, pressure ramps up, from SAT courses--even for Harvard-caliber students, who would excel anyway--to college advisers whose "assistance in preparing applications ranges from appropriate to plagiaristic."

And the cycle never stops. "The 'right' graduate school looms after college, and the 'right' sequence of jobs is next. Such attainments make it possible to live in the 'right' kinds of communities" and to begin preparing one's children "to vault even higher hurdles." No surprise, "Professionals in their thirties and forties--physicians, lawyers, academics, business people, and others--sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp....Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal."

For the victims of this chase, Fitzsimmons and his colleagues hope to offer an alternative. Reflecting on the essay in his Byerly Hall office, he talked about the basic human need to "assess what your talents are or might be, and what it is that you truly love and value." Putting those two together, Fitzsimmons said, "is not always obvious," but it is the key to becoming "a much happier, more complete human being--spouse, parent, community member, and professional, whatever you do." To do so, people must step back and take the time to find out who they want to become.

To that end, prescribing in the realm where they might have most direct effect, the authors strongly urge students to consider taking a year off before entering college, to travel, work, study, teach, or try any of an array of other activities away from the treadmill. They list a wide range of such broadening experiences of self-discovery pursued by members of the Harvard class of 2004.

Applying their broader counsel to college admissions and the undergraduate years, the authors offer several lessons. Fitzsimmons cautioned against becoming fixated on a particular college, since the critical issue is the fit between an institution and a student's talents and humane development. "The truth of the matter," he said, "is that the aura of a particular college label will not last very long if you can't do the job thereafter." Reinforcing the importance of human breadth, rather than narrow brilliance or focused expertise, he noted that beyond a few hundred students in each Harvard class who excel in one endeavor--music, or mathematics, or sports--the majority are successfully engaged in several activities.

And so, as he wrote to the College's 6,000 alumni interviewers last April, "Interviews are actually more important than ever. The principal reason: the personal qualities of our students have never mattered more." With high-school grade inflation, the "re-centering" (and escalation) of SAT scores, the degradation of recommendations from overworked counselors, and the buffing up of applications by consultants, paper records have been devalued. In their place, Fitzsimmons said, "the intangibles are determinative. Will this person be a great educator of other students? What will she or he be like as a prospective roommate, or working 50 hours a week on the Crimson, or in a seminar, or on the lacrosse team, or in late-night discussions?" Those skills, he maintained, are what distinguish among the thousands of applicants to elite schools, all of whom have superior grades and test scores. And so, too, in life beyond, where teamwork and the ability to educate others increasingly determines success not only in business but in once-solitary realms like scientific research.

Sorting out one's aptitudes and inclinations between the ages of 18 and 22 is never easy, Ducey said. These are the "great years of deciding things, perhaps for the first time in your life: whom you might befriend or hang out with, what to study, and what career path to follow." Those decisions become more difficult when well-meaning but "high-achieving or high-demanding parents" have "undermined the child's sense of self-achievement and development."

Although the vast majority of students have no problem "throwing the gates wide open and seeing what they are attracted to," he said, "pursuing the achievement map" can cripple decisionmaking. The results can be guilt, resentment, or confusion--the student guided into premedical studies who begins failing her science courses while acing Core classes and the visual and environmental studies curriculum. In responding to such "efforts at growth, disguised," Ducey said, Bureau of Study Counsel psychologists "aim to help a student feel more free to become who she or he might be."

Overall, the authors agree, "the meritocracy is very healthy," as Ducey put it, even if accompanied by bizarre phenomena like counselors in the nursery. In negotiating life's challenges, Lewis said, the point is not that one should shy away from pursuing a passion and working hard--before college, at Harvard, or in a career. Rather, she emphasized, "It's your own plan you should follow with passion and a lot of energy, not someone else's."

Ducey hoped their paper might help high-school guidance professionals put students' apparent aspirations in context. "It would be nice," he added, "if parents could, a little bit, let up on the pressure and realize that their child's future is not foreordained by getting into, or not getting into, an elite school."

What has been the reaction? Fitzsimmons cited wide agreement among admissions officers, and a chorus of "Thank you!" from guidance counselors. He cited with particular pleasure a letter from a mother and physician in North Carolina. Noting that her eighth grader had stepped back from sports, she wrote, "This has been the most wonderful fall in years, because everyone was home at the end of the school day," making time for "dinner as a family every night. We even played cards the other evening!" Thanks for "attempting to stop the insanity," she added, "It is nuts"--but not before noting that a letter offering her boy early admission to Harvard would be nice.

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