Season 3: Episode 6 Transcript
Easing the Stress of the Search
From Hanover, New Hampshire, I'm Lee Coffin, Dartmouth's Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. Welcome to the Admissions Beat.
Every January I find myself visiting high schools around the country to do junior kickoffs—programs that the schools offer for parents, sometimes parents and students, to go over the ABCs of college admissions with the members of the junior class who are right at the starting line. And as I've done these programs over the last few weeks, I've been struck by a theme that has emerged at every school I have visited. And that theme is stress.
Every place in Florida, in Baltimore and Boston and places in between, have been characterized by this angsty buzz as the college search winds up. And it seems to be everywhere: students, parents, sharing this anxiety about what's about to unfold. And I started poking around, and sure enough, the Admissions Beat has headlines that take a nod to that as well. The New York Times had a story called "Greater Competition for College Places Means Higher Anxiety, Too."
And the opening sentence, "As the frenzied college application season draws to a close, the students across the country mull their choices and many colleges are trumpeting that it was the most selective year ever. But the high school guidance counselors and admission experts say the heightened competition has turned the process into an anxiety-ridden numbers game." What's interesting about that headline? It's from April 2016.
America Magazine had one that was titled "We're Sacrificing Our Kids' Mental Health to the College Admissions Industrial Complex." Harvard Ed School had a story called "Taming the Admissions Anxiety, How to Parent through the College Process, Navigating Hopes and Expectations, Yours and Theirs, in the Minefield of Status and Achievement Pressure."
This week we're going to look at stress, anxiety and their siblings, mindfulness and wellness as a way of introducing the college search through a more balanced prism. When we come back, I'll be joined by two guests, one from college counseling world and one from student affairs at a university. And the three of us will have a conversation about how to tackle this beast of stress that haunts the admission process. We'll be right back.
My guests this week are two longtime friends. Maria Morales-Kent is the director of college counseling at Thacher School in Ojai, California. Maria, nice to see you.
It's so nice to see you and I feel honored and so excited to be here to talk to you.
No, I'm honored and excited to have you here. And for our listeners, Maria has had a now three-decade run as a college counselor at Thacher. But also like so many college counselors, started her career in college admissions at Penn and at Occidental. And so while that might be a ways ago, you bring to your work in the school side that DNA of an admission officer so I'm glad to have you in this conversation, Maria, because I know you've been paying attention to this question of stress and anxiety in the admission process for a long time.
Thank you. Thank you. I'm excited to talk about it and it's always so great to connect with our admissions folks because you all are carrying a lot of stress at this time as well. And so recognizing that we're not alone is also really helpful when things feel difficult.
I think that's right. We all go to our little corners and you don't realize, oh, we're all worrying about things similar and different.
And joining Maria and me in this conversation is Mary Pat McMahon, who is the Vice Provost and Vice President of Student Affairs at Duke University and my former colleague at Tufts for many years. Mary Pat, always great to have you on the pod. Welcome back.
Mary Pat McMahon:
Hi Lee, nice to see you. Hi Maria.
And like Maria, once upon a time, Mary Pat wandered the high schools of the world as an admission officer herself representing her alma mater Yale for a few years before she switched to student affairs.
And what I wanted to do today is link school, college admission and then the undergraduate experience together in this conversation because I think what Maria sees in the high school with eyewitness as an admission officer ultimately lands in the class that enrolls every August, September and that Mary Pat and her colleagues in the student affairs world and the faculty of course on college campuses navigate and support. I thought, this trio comes from this topic from three really important perspectives.
I wanted to start our conversation by reading a part of an email I received in October from one of Maria's peers at an independent school in Maryland who had invited me to come to campus to do a keynote. And she was really focused on wellness as the topic of my talk. But she wrote a paragraph that really jumped out at me and if I'm giving credit where it's due, inspired this episode.
She wrote, "Our students are bright, creative, diverse and compassionate. They're also quite competitive and highly aspirational. Our wellness team, our faculty and the college counseling office work hard to promote a culture of wellness on our campus, but we are pushing back against a powerful societal tide. Anxiety and depression are on the rise, and that was true even prior to COVID and ever more now. How often do we hear, 'College is the source of all of our anxiety? What do I need to be doing in, checklist of sorts, order to get into a selective college?'" And she wrote, "It is our hope that your talk might help us lower the flames of anxiety and reassure our students that they will be seen and known in the admission process."
Maria, does that sound familiar to you as a college counselor?
Absolutely. At my school we have a wonderful group of seniors every year with great aspirations. And the interesting thing for me is when I watch them go through the process is that when they come in as juniors, there's actually for a moment this wonderful energy and excitement about this opportunity that's before them. And I love it because it reminds me of being a high schooler myself, being so excited to go to college, such an important milestone in my life.
But one of the things that of course happens is that over time as they begin to engage more deeply and they begin to hear all the chatter that's out there, then it can't help but seep into their psyche and then suddenly things become really ratcheted up. And suddenly stress levels increase and worries increase.
And one of the things that I always tell my students, I say, "If I could, I would put each of you in this wonderful glass jar and I would visit you in that glass jar. And your parents are also allowed to visit you periodically in that glass jar on the topic of college and the college process."
Because if we could do that, if we could just let you engage in self-reflection, think about your future and the things that you love to do and focus in on this process that actually allows you. I heard one of my seniors talking to two juniors on the walk and clearly they were trying to get the low down. And I actually heard the senior say, "The essays are not that bad and they're a chance to talk about yourself in a way that I haven't really done in high school because most of the things that I've done in high school are analytical papers and writing."
And so they were giggling and laughing. And I thought that's the beauty of this process is that it can be, if students and parents and the rest of us really focus on that opportunity for students to think about their lives. Think about what their future might look like and be excited about what those opportunities are going to be like. If I could keep everyone in a little jar, I think that things would be a lot easier.
And it sounds like the jar would be soundproof.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. None of the chatter that comes at the students. And it's interesting too, I just sat down and chatted with a young woman that I'm so excited to work with. I love her energy. And one of the things that she actually shared was that she's very grateful because she said, "My parents are pretty cool and they're pretty laid back about this. And they're encouraging me to be aspirational, but to not go into this like I've got to achieve the biggest name brand possible." And she said, "But a lot of it is me as well because I'm an achiever and I want to do well and I want to make them proud." She said, "But it's actually also the culture of my peers and how we all talk about it." And so it's interesting because the peer group is so critical for teenagers, it inspires them. It encourages them to push forward, it challenges them. It sometimes makes them feel bad. They're a really powerful force.
And so my goal always with the kids is I have a college class with them as juniors and as seniors and I'm constantly trying to message to them as a group the ability that they each have to support each other and to try to create a culture that is healthy and to avoid comparisons. And if somebody doesn't want to talk about their college process, you should not be poking around. And hold your opinions. Think about the people in the space around you. Think about who's right next to you or who might be walking by and may hear something that you say. Again, trying to create that little jar for each of my students. Yeah.
I have this image of this process is like a relay race. You are at the starting line and you've got the baton first you pass it to me and my peers and we read and we bring the students forward. And then there's Mary Pat at the finish line. And as you listen to Maria share some insights from what she sees in her school, what do you inherit? What happens on your campus, whether it was Tufts or now Duke that syncs with what you hear Maria describing?
Mary Pat McMahon:
There's so much that syncs. This idea of creating a culture that's healthy. I know Lee, in the admissions process, that's a focus. Certainly in a lot of committees I've sat it on in the past few years, it's been thinking about creating an authentic and healthy engaged culture, building a community where students are going to be able to come to campus and really dig into those passions. Have more opportunity to develop on that self-actualization and reflection that Maria is talking about.
And of course everyone's thinking about the process because there's so many times we feel like you don't have that much control. Thinking about the lack of control in the process can lead people to a spot where they end up on a campus and have been thinking about the outcome of getting there and less about the how am I going to thrive here? What am I going to do?
I think a lot of people between April and their decision for where they're going to matriculate and August for us, and at Duke it's August, up at Bowdoin, it's September. Depends on the school, what time of year you land on the campus. But when you land on the campus, showing up rested, showing up reflective, and then knowing that again, that same intensity that you're both talking about, you're going to find a peer group that is coming in from all over the world. It's super exciting. Being ready to jump into that. It's an unfolding for sure.
As I'm listening to both of you, I'm struck by a parallel between what Maria said and what Mary Pat just said. Which is Maria said at the beginning of this process, the juniors come to it with some joy, some optimism, and then that fades as too many voices start telling them too many things and they drift from joy to worry. And Mary Pat, you're talking about what should be the joyful beginning of the undergraduate experience. It's the culmination of this whole college search. It's like you land in college. But you're also saying that that optimism of what is new starts to erode really quickly around the anxiety that I think comes with the trajectory from high school to college.
Mary Pat McMahon:
Yeah, I'm saying I guess that there's variability. I think the opportunity to show up rested, reflective, this is where I want to be, includes taking some steps in the junior year and senior year and admissions process that allow you to amplify on that insight that Maria was talking about. How do you develop a reflective skill in this process so that you're coming into these processes feeling like you have control, which you do, and feeling like you're making decisions that help you figure out where you're going to grow and thrive? I think there's a big difference. If you can get here with that mindset, it's a great way to start.
How do they get here with that mindset? Hey, Maria, I mean, what's the advice to the students and parents? We're witnessing this, but how do we help them act on what we're saying?
When you were talking Mary Pat about how kids arrive and they're suddenly figuring out this is where I've landed. I think there's so many reasons for that. Number one, I think from my perspective and what I tell my students is it has to do with the fact that this growth and surge of applications that we have witnessed, well gosh, since I first arrived at Thacher in 1997, and then it's just continued because colleges want to attract students from all corners of the US and all corners of the world.
And then what did COVID do? COVID exacerbated that by creating these fabulous opportunities, podcasts and Zooms, where you can actually connect with kids from around the world. This surge in applications has generated this stress around then how do I stand out in a process where there's so many thousands of applicants all, especially at the schools that you work for, where the kids are all really phenomenal?
And so I think that what's happened over time is that worry of what if I don't get in, what that has actually done is created this push for more applications from everyone. And if you look at the statistics from the common application and the number of individual students who are applying, it's that individual students are applying to just a whole lot more schools. But kids are going at it from a place of fear because they don't know where they're going to get in so they're just casting this wide, wide net.
My encouragement from my students is you need to find eight to 10 schools that you really know well. And you need to dig deep and you need to learn about them. Think about all the things that colleges are providing you now in order to learn about them. It used to be where the only way to learn about a school was to visit, and for students who couldn't afford to visit, how are they supposed to figure that out? And now all of the colleges have created this incredible library of opportunities.
My encouragement to the kids is keep that list manageable, get to know those schools. That's how you can actually decide whether you want to apply to a school early decision or not. That the motivation is not, it's so that I can get in. The motivation is that I've come to find a place or a set of places where I can be really happy and successful and I have an understanding of who those places are. I think trying to keep the list smaller rather than bigger is really, really important.
I also feel that that's what allows students who are being encouraged a lot to pursue an early process, to be more emotionally ready to pursue an early process in. Because what that means is the summer that we used to remember about just the glorious summer before senior year where we could just go and have fun is really a summer that requires much more preparation for the process.
We provide students this thing called an autobiography where they can do a lot of self-reflection, look at some of the essays that might be in front of them to write and get excited about those places and then take advantage of all of these opportunities that you are presenting to them.
And then the final thing that I just want to bring up is there's that whole myth. What is it? The myth of choice. That the more choices you have, the better you're going to feel about ultimately your final one. And so I always say to my kids, and I think they think I'm silly, but then when they experience it, they know it's true. You walk into that ice cream parlor at some random place and it's a huge, it's like 54 choices. And statistics, or actually psychologists have done studies on this. When you step into a place like that and have all of these choices as you look around at the other people who've picked something else, you wonder, "Should I have picked that instead?"
And so my goal for kids is to try to keep the list manageable, to encourage a deep dive into them and to encourage parents to do the same. So that when they get to you, Mary Pat, they know why they chose your school and they're ready to go. And they're excited about it rather than like, "Wow, I thought I really wanted this because everybody was telling me this is what I wanted and now here I am, and is this really my place?" And then I totally agree. I agree that once they graduate, just relax and rest and take care of yourself so you can be ready for that new adventure.
Yeah. Mary Pat, as the ghost of admission officers past and now student affairs leader, what advice do you have to juniors and parents to act on this idea of like, okay, let's lower the stress and keep ourselves focused?
Mary Pat McMahon:
Pay attention to what you're enjoying in your junior year and that will guide you. It sounds like, "But how do I know where I'm supposed to apply?" But to the extent that one can be patient and families can be patient, what do you love? What teachers are making your whole world light on fire right now? And what things are you reading? Where do you find yourself self-teaching? Are you doing music chords and figuring out how to do dichromatic scales in your bedroom when you have a few spare minutes? Or are you thinking about ChatGPT and seeing if you can outsmart it right now? Paying attention to where your intellectual pathways are taking you, and then using that as part of your guide for how do you find a campus? Which schools could I explore this in? How do I think about that stuff?
If you're just focused on where am I going to get in, you miss the developmental moments junior and senior year of how do I know what I want to do? And which by the way, we all know that's different than the question of what am I good at. I'm good at these things. But then how do you have reflect on, in addition to that, which things feed me, nourish me? Where am I most curious? Could I see myself going deep into pre romantic old English language study if I'm going to be an English major in college? Which is different than I love Faulkner. And so there's lots of different ways that one has to. It takes time. It's a process.
Well, I think the key piece of what you're both saying is juniors need to take advantage of high school.
Mary Pat McMahon:
To do high school. High school is not the pre-college. It is pre-college, but high school is an experience unto itself that needs to be experienced, embraced, enjoyed. It seems so straightforward, but to say to an 11th grader, "You're in 11th grade. You get to be 16, 17 and dig into that without seeing these months this year as something to be managed so that I then get into college." And then we find ourselves in Mary Pat's doorstep saying, "Well, now what?"
Mary Pat McMahon:
Yeah. And I understand that anybody who's a junior in high school right now would listen to this and say, "Well, that's easy for you guys to say." Because blah percent admit rate and the early process and stuff. I say all that with the big asterisk. And it's good to be looking ahead, but to the extent that you can, listen to that. Which things am I resonating with? Which areas, which interests? What kind of leadership, what kind of campus? What do I enjoy about my high school community socially? And which parts can I not wait to be behind me about high school? And then how does that help you think about what does that mean for characteristics of a campus?
I just want to chime in about that. One of the things that I do with my students is I take them back to their childhood. And so what I'm trying to do is really have them think about their life's journey and all the decisions that have been part of their life. And then I love what you said, Lee, about do high school.
And I will never forget one of my really talented guys, he called me and he said, "I hear that you're the new college counselor and I'd like to come and meet you." And I'm like, "Great." We talked and he said, "I really haven't thought a lot about college." He said, "I've just been really busy here doing a lot of stuff that I really like and I've gotten some good grades so I figured that now I can think about it. And I feel kind of ready. And I grew up in this little town. I want to go to the city." And he was an amazing student to work with because in fact, he came to it with some aspirations and he landed at a pretty fancy school.
Let's talk about parents. One of the themes I've seen in the junior programs I'm doing is this stress is shared by students and parents alike. And at one panel I did a couple of weeks ago, one of my fellow panelists asked the students, they were by themselves, "Where does the stress originate?" And the room almost at once said, "Our parents."
And when the parents were with us, we said, "Do you realize you're generating stress?" And they looked around like, "Well, we're not generating stress, we're just trying to help our students move forward." And a lot of parents listen to the podcast. I know that their instincts are from a loving place to help their students move forward, attain something. But what advice do you have for parents about either being aware of the stress they're generating without even knowing they're doing it, or to let go of their own stress? Do they do yoga? I mean, what's the way a mom, dad, guardian could let go a little bit and let this process move forward on its own energy, maybe?
Mary Pat McMahon:
Gain insight and understanding about what they actually like and want to do. And remember that so many ways, we didn't have Google. If we are parents now for college going students, we weren't able to Google all this information about XYZ college. At the time, you had to write away, you had to write in and get the paper things back. Different world, different access to information.
And so helping families and parents and guardians navigate that includes how do they go past the cover of the brochure and how do they think about campus culture? And how do they understand what schools have to differentiate themselves? I'm a big believer that there are many great educational opportunities out there. They're not all the same, and the admission rate does not track to quality of opportunity for your kid. And I think hitting that note with one's children would be something I think would be really helpful.
There's lots of great opportunities out there. Affordability's got to be a part of how people think about this as well. And there's a huge range of affordability. Understanding the financial aid processes, we can talk about that if you want. But yeah, I mean, if I was going to boil down what I'm saying, it is there's a lot of reasons for all those applications. People end up somewhere and there's a lot more information about the different schools and fit. Helping your student understand who they are, helping them understand their options is different than focusing on the admit rates or the chances.
Well, it's interesting as Maria's advice to focus on a smaller number of institutions and know them well is counterintuitive to this panic instinctive, the odds seem long, so let me flood the flood universe with as many applications as I can and maybe I'll get into one. And what's happening is each student clicks submit more and more and more times is it's like a boa constrictor wrapping around this process and squeezing it even tighter. We all almost need to step back and say, "Enough. Six is good."
But the volume, I think is one of the triggers of stress because the volume creates selectivity. And the headlines that come out each spring tend to focus on scarcity, not abundance. And the idea that something desirable is hard to attain, ratchets up the desire for that outcome, but also the worry that it's not possible. Maria, you're nodding as I say that.
Yes. I think it's so important for parents to really acknowledge the landscape is really different. And so many of my parents will say, "I got into that school, my kid should be able to get into that school." But the difference is the number of applications that are now being submitted to that school.
And so I think if parents can really take a serious look, and I think so many college counselors provide so many resources to help them understand what the landscape looks like. You are planning that college visit. You're doing the college visit. And we tell parents, "Make sure that your first college visit is really easy. See a variety of schools. We're happy to give you a range of schools." And we do, we give a list of schools. And some parents are awesome where they take kids to a range of schools, small and large, ones that are a little more competitive than the other for admissions, really broad.
But then oftentimes we'll have parents who come back and we'll review the list of the schools that they visited, and it's only the Ivies that they ended up visiting. And when you asked them, they're like, "Well, we didn't have enough time. And so we just thought we would go see the big ones. And I want them to know what the big ones really look like and how great they are." And so then we unpack it and I said, "So what do you think that message sent to your little child following along? This is where mom and dad want me to go." versus if you had taken them to a much broader group of schools and the students were like, "Oh, there's this choice and mom and dad are excited about this choice as much as they are about this choice." And so then it becomes about the student and what is the best choice for the student rather than just a particular group of schools.
I always tell parents where you choose to take your children on those college visits sends them a huge message in ways that you don't even realize or recognize, but it does send them a huge message.
The other thing is that there was a student who had a student panel of seniors talking to some juniors recently. And it was so cute. The seniors said, "Okay, so don't dis your parents because they want to be involved and they love you." But one of the things that they said, "But you should set some boundaries. You should just let mom and dad know I want to have this conversation with you, but I don't want to talk about college all the time. Or I'll let you read my essay, but I'm not going to change it. Or I'll take your feedback, but all your words are not suddenly going to be in my essay." And you can invite them in, but set some boundaries.
And I say that to parents, I say that all the time. When you come and visit them at Thacher, because we're a boarding school, don't have the first conversation after a hello be, "So how's the application coming?" Be there just their parent. I'm worried about their application. Let me worry about it.
I do think that it all, as you say Lee, it all comes from a place of love. But it comes also from a feeling. I think that we as human beings, we do believe that the best is the best and that we want the best for our kids. But your child should go to a college where they're being stretched but affirmed, stretched, and affirmed. Because if they're constantly being stretched, then all kinds of stuff happens to their psyche about it. And they're not joining this or joining that because they're feeling like their grades are the most important and they're in the library all the time. This is where you talk about the onion. You want the whole onion to just blossom in college.
Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about this achievement pressure because I think it carries into the first year of college in a really direct way. But Maria, starting in the junior senior year, those are important years. They're foundational parts of a transcript. How do we calibrate a high achiever or an overachievers instinct to get an A at all costs?
In this conversation with juniors and seniors that I just recently had, an extraordinary human being, by the way, I thought was her best pieces of advice. She said, "One of the things that I'm going to tell you is senior year I got my head into, I'm going to be applying for colleges. I'm going to be in some tough classes. I prepared myself mentally for that." And she says, "But what I didn't prepare myself for was how difficult all of my extracurricular obligations were going to be on top of these other two things that I prepared myself for." And all the other seniors are nodding their head, they're nodding their head.
And she said, "Be smart. Try out or throw your hat in the ring for leadership opportunities that are really important to you rather than trying to be everything to everybody. Do your high school experience with things that are important and meaningful to you. Invest your time in that because that's going to actually be the balm to those moments of stress. Because you can leave the stress and go do that really great activity that you believe in. Or engage in some service opportunity that really feeds your soul."
And I would say, I mean based on my own experience as an admission officer, I was always looking for depth more than just every other club out there. I was looking for what's this kid really excited about? What have they been doing since freshman year that is still engaging them and they love and that they're going to come to my school and do that? They're going to come and show that kind of commitment at my institution.
two-wordYeah, I read a file yesterday and the student was a programmer, coder. Really the main extracurricular robotics, coding, programming, building an app. And it was deep, it was passionate, it was authentic and it was fun to read. The student was really jazzed about that discovery that had happened three or four years earlier that he said, "I just can't get enough of it and I can't wait to get to college to study it more."
And I think the myth of everybody has to do everything is one of the little boogeymen that dances around college admission that everybody must be well-rounded and you must check every box. And that's not true.
But the achievement piece, Mary Pat, I think lands very squarely in the first year of college too. Where this energy that swells during the latter part of high school that carries someone through the college admission search and into a first year class. I watched students at Dartmouth say to me, "I just have to keep charging forward." And I say, "No, you got here now. You can enjoy this."
Mary Pat McMahon:
upper-classThe two word advice on how to start, be intentional. And there are ways that college students can sit and fill their online shopping cart with here's intro Spanish, here's intro anthropology, here's intro psych, here's the writing seminar, here's my calc class. You can do this shallow level engagement with your opportunity as an undergrad.
And then if you can connect face-to-face with other people, talk to upper class students that have been here, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Ask some questions and take some risks to be more in front of other humans.
And you can chat with people and text with people and GroupMe it. It's that you don't have to just do face-to-face with random people you've never met. But the taking it off of a research-based digital spreadsheet and into really asking faculty members who teach the course or resources that are students that are leading clubs about what they would do or how they do it. It's super helpful and it helps keep people in the more intentional and engaged space. Great way to start.
And we're talking about wellness behind all of this, being able to form ties with peers and near peers. That's how you start a successful fabric of wellbeing as you go through college.
well-beingOne of the studies that I've read at some point about the key to success in college, which I think applies certainly to the key to success in high school for us, is I think it's so important for students to realize that there's so many adults who want to be so supportive and who are excellent mentors. And in the list of being successful, one of the important things was that if a student had a mentor, if they had an adult in their life or two adults in their life who were giving them feedback, who were encouraging them, who were meeting with them periodically.
And when I think about it, shout out to Jim Montoya, who was my mentor in college. And when I think about the moments where he just checked in on me to see how I was doing and how I was progressing. And he became somebody that I trusted and I would go to him for advice. And I ended up being an intern for him as a senior at Occi.
And I think that those pieces are so important. That's what I encourage students. And I think that whether it's a favorite teacher, whether it's an advisor, whether it's a coach, to have somebody in addition to parents who can give you some words of wisdom when you need them and remind you that you're doing things well. And encourage you to challenge yourself in different ways. I think that's super important and can help, again, lower the stress. You might go to that person when you're really stressed about something and then they give you some perspective or they give you some new idea to think about, a new way to look at what you're experiencing.
Does social media cause stress in this admission conversation? Maria, you're like a bobblehead nodding. How?
Because when I went to school or when I was a kid and I went to school, my point of comparison was my local community or my high school. And social media makes the point of comparison the world. And the world based on social media, doesn't allow things like wrinkles or anything. Everything is perfection. And you take a million pictures to post that one perfect one. And if your point of reference is perfection, which is created via social media, then it's so hard for young people to ever feel like they're attaining that.
Mary Pat McMahon:
Yes and no. I mean, I think for sure that same yes to everything Maria said around ways that it creates this broader lens onto how things are curated going for others. I think I would take advantage of all those schools that have the Ask a Blue Devil, I don't know, Ask a Banana Slug, ask anybody questions about what's really happening. That's a huge equalizer and access advantage for people too, knowing it's curated.
What about doom scrolling?
Mary Pat McMahon:
Yeah, so doom scrolling is just going through social media, flipping through things and click, click, click. There's actually, there is a link to it to mental health and loneliness and anxiety and isolation. Because students have said to my colleagues who work in counseling at multiple schools, "It seems like everybody else is doing great. I know I'm looking at a curated experience when I'm on somebody's Insta and TikTok and seeing them. Everybody's having a great time at this party. Everybody looks fabulous on this ski vacation. And meanwhile, I need to do my laundry. I have no idea what topic I'm going to write in the next paper. And I managed to have a conflict at home and with my roommate at the same time, but everybody else is doing great."
Doom scrolling is running through the internet and feeling like everyone else is doing fantastic, and I'm the only one who's struggling right now. Set yourself a time limit on it. And then in a new campus, in a new environment, being somewhere you don't know everybody, not falling into that at the expense of forging new relationships and taking risks with people.
And I think the risk of scrolling through your social feed as it relates to admissions is it's easy to believe everybody knows what they're doing.
Mary Pat McMahon:
And you get stressed because you think, "I'm the only one who missed this boat. Everyone seems to have figured it out. They're wearing their sweatshirt. They're opening decisions and having confetti come spraying at them from their friends. And I have missed out." And I think that amps up the worry that I see.
And when I have talked to our current students about their search and they all say, "Oh, I was so stressed." And I think, well, what made you stressed? And they said, "So much information coming at me from so many different places. So much to do and seemingly not enough time to do it well. And this worry that I was going to fail" And the social media sometimes amplifies that.
And the caution I would share with students who are creatures of social media, I think it would be a silly thing for me to say, "Just turn it off." That's impossible. That would be like saying put your phone down. It's part of their daily identity. But I think what you can do as an applicant, as an active admission citizenship is don't share so much of your own search with your peer group and have control over yourself. One less voice in that chorus is one less voice throwing more worry on someone else's feed. Does that make sense, Maria?
Yes, absolutely. I love everything that you've all been saying. One of the things that I am not a fan of is the whole moment when the student is sitting in front of the computer waiting for the decision. And I just feel that that is such a difficult thing.
And I'm imagining the kids who are being filmed for that decision, and maybe the decision is a disappointing one. Then what happens? Does the parents shut it off or the teacher? I've actually seen high schools do the same thing, and I just feel terrible. Because on the other hand, not only are you running such huge risk in making this such a public moment for someone, but the reality is that you are feeding it. You're feeding it so you're posting stuff. And so somebody else who's not being filmed, but who's getting a really sad decision or a very disappointing decision, is looking at this video of joy and they're feeling sad. Like as you were saying, Mary Pat curated, so they're only seeing this and they're not seeing the other many disappointed students that are out there.
But this notion of applying to 15, 20, 25, 30 applications, which I hear about, what happens when all of those no's are just coming at them one right after the other if it ends up being a list that is top heavy, really top heavy? It's just a lot for somebody to have to manage. And unfair, especially if we as the adults in the room can help guide them to be more thoughtful in making a choice about where they're applying so that it's not so many of those.
One of the things that I say to students is, "You don't have to talk about the college process. This can be a private thing." And here we are in a boarding school where it's really hard for things to be private, but it can be a private process. Again, as one of my students said, "Set some boundaries." Invite who you want to invite in the conversation, but don't feel like you have to make it public and be thoughtful and contribute to that culture as a community that is being really, really respectful.
It's such a weird thing for high schools too, because we want to tout our pride about the success of our students, but we have to think about the potential impact. When decisions are about to come out, I always have a meeting with faculty to remind them, "Remember, if a student wants to come and tell you, they'll tell you. If they don't want to talk, then just don't. You need to create that space for them." I think there are many things that we can do to try to control the stress and that chatter that comes at us that increases the level of stress.
Well, and you're making a really important point about college admission leading to a lesson in disappointment. And it doesn't mean every search ends in disappointment, but for students who have college lists that lean in a very selective direction, the reality of that arena is nos are more prevalent than yeses.
And I often say the students, two things. One, "My title is not the dean of denial. It is the Dean of Admission. The purpose is to find a path to yes. But the byproduct of that path to yes, is I can't invite everybody to join this class. And so it's a decline, not a rejection."
And that's a really important word. People say, "Oh, you're just playing with semantics." I'm like, "No. The intent of it is we're declining the application, and it's usually, again, managing a scarce resource." And the leveling expectations as a list gets created now, as the list gets adjusted and curated from now through the deadlines and beyond is a really important exercise in pragmatic planning.
What are the odds of admission? And how do I position myself so that if I just put all of my chips on the part of the board where a yes is hardest to get, well yeah, you've just upped the anxiety level there because you're hoping against hope. But a balanced list with a more objective way of understanding a successful outcome, success in quotes, creates, I think, a different path to that conclusion.
I have one more question before we wrap. I was talking to a group of Dartmouth first-years a couple weeks ago, and I said, "If I could rewind you a couple of years, what would you tell yourself if you were a junior in high school, knowing what now?" And all four of them said, I would've said, "Chill out. I wish I knew then what I know now, and I would've chilled more."
Maria, how can a junior/senior in high school chill a little bit?
I can't help but think of a story. I was just chatting with a student of mine. As we know, decisions come out in December for the first round of applications. And then from December until March, they just keep coming. And so it's an up and down, up and down. So it's a lot of emotion that you're experiencing.
And so I always say to my students, "You need to take care of yourselves. You need to take care of yourselves. You need to sleep," which is, of course the challenge that we're always talking about for young people. You need to sleep and you need to surround yourself with people who understand you and know you and can be there when you need them.
But there's also certain things that you can do. And I was talking to one of my students and I said, "When was the last time you went skateboarding?" And he said, "Gosh, I actually haven't gone skateboarding." He said, "I think probably since October or something, because things were so busy." And he said, "But I just went skateboarding actually today." And I said, "Oh, I think you should do that more." I said, "You should do that more often." I said, "Just go and be outside."
And I said, "I want you to remember that when I first met you, you were a pretty relaxed junior who loved to skateboard and who basically, I think I saw you skateboarding every single day. Doing that thing where you go back and forth, and I was so jealous because it just seemed to me like you were in such a peaceful space." He promised that he was going to go back to do that more.
And so I do think that all of us have those things, whether it's yoga. Or whether it's, okay, you're part of chamber, but you love to sing, and so you go and you enjoy that. And I think this goes back to what my other students said to everyone, "If you're going to pick the stuff that you're going to do senior year, pick the stuff that's really important, that really matters to you, that can make you feel really good and can feed your soul or nurture you when things are going really, really difficult."
Yeah, no, I think that's great advice to wrap a conversation on stress in the college admission process. And I agree. Walk your dog. I bake. I find myself needing a timeout from reading, and I will invent different versions of a banana bread. It's something simple, but it's peaceful. And I think there are ways each of us needs to come back to that place. As we think about college, plan for college, act on that plan, and then experience the results.
Mary Pat, Maria, thank you for joining me on the Admissions Beat for this really interesting and wide-ranging conversation about the landscape we're in. It's been great to talk with both of you.
Next week we will be back with another episode of Admissions Beat, and I think we'll take this topic of stress and take it one step further and probe something Maria mentioned, which is affordability. And to help parents in particular think about the cost proposition and the anxiety that paying for college introduces to this topic for juniors as you move through the beginning of a college search.
For now, this is Lee Coffin from Dartmouth College. Thanks for listening. See you next week.