Part III: Stress and Our Students

This is the final entry in a 3 part series devoted to Stress and our Students. The insights below (originally part of our Race to Nowhere office reflection) feature a central irony: there can be a degree of stress even AFTER application decisions are received!

Winter break and holiday celebrations are ahead, and this will conclude our discussion of serious matters for now. In the New Year, this blogger promises some humor drawn from the college application process. Stay tuned–and enjoy vacation.

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IS THAT ALL THERE IS?

An odd phenomenon can occur once the first long-awaited acceptance arrives—particularly from a school that represents the “first choice” or “top choice” for a student. He or she may display great cheer, celebrate… and happily share the news all around. But then, after months of hard work, busyness, and anxiety, an awareness sets in that the application sequence is quite suddenly—-OVER. The “race”, if you will, has been run. As for the destination, that’s many months into the future—beyond second semester, commencement, and summer vacation. Once accepted to college, students may feel they have landed effectively “nowhere”…at least in the temporary sense. After the cheering and celebration, there are more exams to study for, lessons, practices, and rehearsals to attend–and more curfews set by parents. (Most students are at least relieved to banish SAT and ACT’s from their lives at this juncture.)

Some seniors may even experience what a former parent (who specializes in real estate law!) describes as “buyer’s remorse.” While at heart the child may be tremendously excited about her acceptance, subtle doubts and regrets may begin to surface. Should I have looked at more places? Should I have bypassed early decision in order to consider more options in the spring? Should I have explored places closer to (or further away from) home? As we adults know, second-guessing ourselves is not a good feeling. Imagine how complicated this is for a late adolescent who lacks extensive life experience– and the wisdom that accompanies it.

How to help? With regard to buyer’s remorse, a parent can only reassure the student that she has conducted her reflection carefully and well. (It is also important to underscore that while there is an infinite array of colleges to explore, one has to draw the line somewhere–with help from College Counseling.)  As for the sometimes anticlimactic nature of college acceptance, we need to help kids pause and reflect on their progression. We need to remind them that the period following the close of a theater production or the conclusion of a busy sports season is an odd, strangely inactive time. Wrapping-up the college search is no different.

by Helen Scotte Gordon

Stress and Our Students: Part II

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Numerous factors conspire to burden our nation’s teenagers: long days and heavy homework loads, anxiety about various tests and school measurements, making parents proud, finding social acceptance, being attractive—and even living up to the American dream of a good salary and a “big” house.

The compelling questions parents and educators will inevitably ask themselves are these:
*What can we do to alleviate the stress?
* How can we help our children lead healthier lives?
* How can we change some of the patterns that create so much pressure during adolescence?

START COUNTING COLLEGE CALORIES!
Kids desperately need parents to understand that they can’t talk about college ALL the time. Author and educator Dr. Michael Thompson refers to “going on a college diet”; he urges parents to choose one dinner per week or one weekend afternoon when conversing about applications is sanctioned.

Similarly, parents can help children develop the confidence to ask others—including their classmates, relatives, coaches (even the dentist and orthodontist!)—not to converse about applications constantly. There are polite ways to protect one’s privacy during what can otherwise be a very public pursuit.

RESIST NAGGING…AND DON’T FORGET THE TREATS!
Moses Brown students are fortunate to have incredibly devoted and supportive parents. (Seniors regularly express their appreciation for their families during conversations in College Counseling.) Ultimately, our students express the need to establish their independence and utilize the support system at home. “I drive myself,” explained one senior in our office recently. “When my parents are on me, it stresses me out more.” In the way of advice to parents, she added (with a smile), “Give your kids space—but be there if they need to be quizzed for a biology test!”

That said, our children need us to be supportive, understanding and loving in our role as parents. Their top request? They desperately need us to refrain from nagging. (Let us do the reminding in College Counseling!).

Seniors also trust that parents will not measure them based on successes and disappointments in the application process; they deeply care what we think. Our sons and daughters additionally want us to acknowledge all that they have on their platters—including spending time with the MB friends who mean so much to them (and to whom they will eventually need to say “goodbye”).

The simplest advice? During essay writing and application completion season, students appreciate favorite treats and affectionate rewards— home baked goodies, a steaming Starbucks latte, an impromptu hug. Little things mean a lot.

HELPFUL ADULTS SURROUND STUDENTS AT MB
Students also look to adults at school for support. They are fortunate to count on MB teachers, advisors, coaches, co-curricular leaders and administrators for caring advice, able guidance, and a sympathetic ear. They trust that we will be sensitive to homework loads (including occasional homework free weekends!), the extra labor associated with college applications, necessary days for visiting campuses, and the daily plight of being an adolescent—all things we are committed to studying and weighing for our students.

photocostaricaTHE POWER OF A 13TH YEAR
A “gap” year (or transition year) can be a wonderful and refreshing option for students who need a change of pace, an adventure—or perhaps a break from the rigorous academic routine. Students often find it rejuvenating to take control of their destiny after a structured high school existence —whether that means pursuing community service, traveling, taking a course or reading extensively. We stand ready to offer MB students and parents ideas in this regard.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TRANSITION
My colleague Helen Montague regularly asks her college advisees a simple but radically overlooked question: How do you cope with change?

This brilliant query strikes at the heart of the student experience during the college process. Many kids welcome the transition from high school to college: they crave independence, need to be in charge of their own lives, and rebuff the oversight and supervision of their parents. Some children can barely wait to be liberated–making senior year a test of patience for all involved in the family.

However, other students are more tentative about the significant changes ahead in their lives. They may be content existing within a predictable routine with the support of immediate and extended family on a daily basis. These students may even depend upon the steady guidance of their parents—not to mention the tasty meals, and comfortable bedroom and laundry facilities that accentuate their home life. Imagining a different scenario can leave them feeling worried, unraveled, and, yes, stressed.

We live in a society that elevates change and mobility. Within the college process, we typically follow this model and encourage kids to branch out, look outside of our region, and consider new places. This is largely a positive impetus. Yet we also need to protect kids in the college search who do not or cannot embrace change gracefully. They may be prone to homesickness, count on the support of a parent, wish to stay close to younger siblings, or have a personal or health issue to negotiate. Changing locales may be better for these students when they are older, more mature, and ready to accept the challenge.

“HAVING A LIFE” IS ESSENTIAL
We have talked about some of the practical ways parents can help escort high school students through a complex time in their lives. Easing up on the constant discussion of college offers one approach. Opening up possibilities to explore (Penn and Pitzer, Duke and Davidson, Middlebury and Macalester) represents another.

In the end, we need to help students claim a high school life—one they can return to when acceptances arrive and the enrollment deposit has been sent. When the quest for college negates sleep, sustaining relationships with friends, spending time outdoors and drifting in thought, reading recreationally, and watching a bit of TV or film (yes, even a dose of Facebook) —our children are bound to be fragile and uneasy. Above all else, we want them to value their educations and exercise their curiosities at MB. Preparation for undergraduate studies is, ultimately, more important than “getting in” to college. Over the course of a four-year university education, broad preparation will yield more benefits than a single acceptance letter.

PARENTS ALSO SUFFER STRESS
As we find ways to help our children, it’s important to acknowledge that the college process is stressful for parents. We’ve made huge financial and emotional investments in our kids, and we want things to turn out right—and well. Granting them independence in the search process is a big step—especially when their sense of efficiency and deadlines is not exactly the same as ours. Similarly, for parents who are not super-organized or accustomed to traveling (or simply have many, many things to do), the layers of the college search can be taxing. Application research also involves a lot of money—both to visit colleges and to finance a four-year education.

SUMMARY
Not surprisingly, parents, faculty, and staff must collaborate to reduce the stress and anxiety carried by many teenagers. Within the college counseling process, we focus on forming a close relationship with each student and empowering him or her to lead the search. We do our best to break a complex project into smaller tasks over the course of numerous months, whether preparing for interviews or brainstorming essays. While the media bombards kids with messages about packaging themselves in slick ways within the application process, we keep the emphasis on personal integrity and maintaining one’s inner light.

Our MB message is clear: students do not need to “go it alone”, their needs and goals are central in the college process, and the “best” college is one that will make a student happy, successful, and inspired. Open-minded, patient, and good-humored support from the family contributes to a rewarding college search for each student—and even some fun and adventure along the way.

Part III next week…  Final Thoughts:  Stress and our Students 

by Helen Scotte Gordon

Stress and Our Students: Part I

Life isn’t easy for high school students in our society. That’s a simple, straightforward fact.

The MB Upper School Parents Association recently sponsored a morning discussion for eleventh and twelfth grade parents and several faculty and staff to discuss the impact of stress upon our students. The conversation reminded me of our office reflections in the wake of “Race to Nowhere”, a compelling documentary shown on our campus two years ago. The film focuses on the complicated lives of adolescents as they negotiate pressure to expand their resumes and activities, take the toughest courses, and apply to the most selective colleges.

This blog entry (along with Part II next week) features a piece written in the spring of 2011. It remains current and is essentially our “mission statement” in College Counseling—albeit a detailed one!

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APPLYING TO COLLEGE IS ONE PART OF THE MB EXPERIENCE
Gaining admission to college is an important goal within our rigorous, independent school setting. However, this goal cannot represent an all-consuming quest that overshadows four years of education. MB students are here to learn, grow, think, take risks, experience failure, develop resilience, find their voices, explore the arts, engage in sports, make friends, spend time with adult mentors, and enjoy their lunch times, free periods, and field trips. Upper school life is not perceived as a “race” within our Quaker school; it is rather a path—a sometimes busy and full one—but a path nonetheless.

BEYOND THE BUMPER STICKER, SWEATSHIRT, AND U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT RANKINGS
Because we like to rate, rank, and elevate brands in American society, our students feel tremendous pressure to seek a “prestigious”, “name”, or “good” college. The fact of the matter is that the undergraduate landscape is chock full of superb institutions—including those with names kids and parents may not recognize!

Creating a match between each Moses Brown student and college is central. The College Counseling office works hard to break down the assumption that certain colleges are “best”. We interact closely with students to help determine the places that match their needs, goals, and lifestyle. We urge all students to think outside of the box and consider many of the fine colleges beyond our region and degree of familiarity. (The “Colleges that Change Lives” website is an excellent resource.)

Our children are bound to be more stressed and anxious if we are communicating to them—either directly or indirectly—that there are only 50 or so colleges that matter.

MANAGING THE COLLEGE TIMETABLE TO AVOID BURNOUT
The college process does not need to be a consuming and distracting four-year “marathon.” At MB, freshmen need to focus on their adjustment to the upper school, both socially and academically. Tenth graders take the PSAT a first time in the early fall solely for practice; sophomores and parents then enter the “warm up” phase of the search through optional attendance at Junior Class College Day workshops (focusing on athletic recruitment, financial aid, etc.), our Providence Independent School College Fair, and introductory Naviance sessions. Juniors take the PSAT a second time in October, attend occasional meetings with visiting college representatives, and schedule a first intensive meeting in College Counseling during the spring semester. Interactions with the college staff continue throughout the second semester, wrapping up with an interviewing skills/campus visit workshop in late May.

KNOWLEDGE IS EMPOWERING
At MB we are fortunate to have many resources and vast information at our disposal in the college process. Students and parents use Naviance (our web-based college search system) to research colleges, find appropriate matches, and view graphs that depict the history of MB candidates and decisions at various institutions. Dozens of admission deans visit our campus each fall to see students and meet with college advisors. (In turn, MB’s two college advisors visit colleges regularly and interact with admission colleagues by phone and email on a daily basis.) Our combined overall experience in College Counseling (David, Jill, and Scotte) is about 70 years! (Jill Stockman aptly adds, “We are still young at heart!”)

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STUDENTS LEAD THEIR SEARCHES, BUT WITH LOTS OF HELP AND GUIDANCE
MB College Counseling breaks the college search sequence down into components that correspond to each phase of the search. We offer presentations and publications that support every aspect, from an interviewing skills workshop to prepare juniors for summer college visits to a financial aid night that assists parents in filling out related paperwork. Students and parents do not need to “go it” alone—especially those who have never been through a college search before. We also establish helpful deadlines for seniors for the draft of their first essay and their first fully completed application. Most importantly, we maintain an open door policy. Stop by, call, or email at any time. All questions are welcome.

BIG LISTS ARE UNPRODUCTIVE AND UNWIELDY
Simplicity is a strong value in our College Counseling office—particularly with regard to the size of college lists. We discourage jumbo lists of applications; the amount of work required to complete 13, 14, 16, or 18 applications does not match the returns. (We are careful to communicate that students cannot research, visit, prepare individualized applications, and communicate effectively with more than 8-11 institutions. There is a law of diminishing returns!)

READINESS VARIES AMONG STUDENTS
Our staff recognizes that students are on very different timetables; often gender, birth order, chronological age, and personality play influential roles. There is no exact “start time” for each student in the college process, nor is there a precise moment when the essay must be written. Some students are eager to dive in to the college process during the summer before senior year; others wait to gain their momentum during the fall of senior year. Readiness plays a crucial role. If our children aren’t ready, and we push or nag them too much, their reaction is bound to be stressed and frustrated. (All members of the household will feel as though you are going exactly “nowhere” when this happens.)

THERE IS EARLY….AND THERE IS WAY TOO EARLY!
Some insist that starting the mechanics of the college search quite early (e.g. well ahead of junior year) is better. We urge caution in this regard. While it is important to be organized and approach each phase of the search in a paced manner, launching children too prematurely can lead to feelings of “burn out” and pressure. In the college counseling office, we need students to bring fresh enthusiasm and energy as they begin to write essays, participate in interviews, visit multiple campuses, and juggle advanced courses. An efficient search involves approximately twelve months; for a child who is waitlisted, it can involve up to six more. Sometimes even well-intentioned parents need to ask themselves: would you want to conduct a job search for twenty-four consecutive months? Would you survive planning a wedding or bar mitzvah in the family for the better part of two years?

SUMMARY
In closing, we would like to stress that the college process does not have to turn into a frenzied “race” for all involved. While a multitude of tasks and deadlines require organization and focus (and the level of choice among colleges in America can be dizzying!), the process is also deeply rewarding. Some students find their voice and confidence while interviewing. Others are proud to write a fantastic essay. Some will take a big risk in choosing to live in another part of the country; others will pursue a passion for physics or archaeology. There is even an element of fun: parents and kids regularly have a great time traveling to campuses, sightseeing along the way, and spending precious time together.

Reflection, research, introspection, organization, creativity, thinking outside the box, adventure, surprise—these are the elements that we value over marathons that lead nowhere. We are lucky for our Quaker compass at this school, and its caring, individualized path for each student.
by Helen Scotte Gordon
Part II to follow next week….