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Reimaging Education: Why Contortion Won’t Get You into Harvard

Compassion is a powerful tool to help young people navigate the competitive, often stressful, college admissions process. Compassion is not an antithesis to achievement; rather, it allows it.

I have been part of the frenzy that robs many young people of sleep, leading to early-onset burnout, and stymying the cultivation of compassion: the world of competitive college admissions. Yet I have also been part of the legions who seek healthier pathways to “success.”

The mystique behind the process and the historic, structural, and systemic inequities have fostered a fear and distrust that the “system is rigged.” We are ever increasingly aware how systems, such as standardized testing, gifted programs, and extracurricular activities, benefit those with the access. And while we undoubtedly must address such challenges on a broader scale, students and parents often feel helpless about their own situations. In an imperfect system, how can we support young people right now to navigate these challenges in a way that offers them the best chances to thrive?

And thrive is what we all want for them – parents, teachers, and yes, admissions officers. I have yet to meet a colleague who does not want the best for the thousands of applicants that cross their desks. Not once in my career did I meet an admissions offer who delighted in rejection, not understood the gravity of their decisions, or dismissed the complex factors and pressures students face. It may feel like a zero-sum game, but a game it is not.

As an admissions officer, I watched 16-year olds contort themselves into versions of who they think they should be. They sign up for community service projects for which their hearts are not committed, spend a decade playing an instrument they merely tolerate, and smile incessantly to prove they are never unhappy, tired, or insecure. A whole global industry of faux application packaging prays on the anxieties of high school students and concerned, well-meaning parents. Those who cross ethical boundaries make many promises and even more money.

Even if these students “get in,” some intensely pursue education without embracing the thrill of learning. By contorting themselves to fit a perception of “success,” they sacrifice precious moments of college life, those unstructured, ‘do nothing’ moments of chatting with dormmates through the night or sunning by the riverbank on a lazy afternoon, in exchange for an over-packed schedule filled with the “right” activities and the “right” internships and the “right” GPAs. Unsurprisingly, universities report an increase in stress and burnout in students. In 2010, the American College Health Association found a third of surveyed students with impaired daily functioning due to depression.

For some, contortion doesn’t end once the Wall Street job or medical school is achieved. Having spent much of my career as an executive coach and trainer, I have witnessed how burn-out and deep-seated discontentment take root well before reaching the corner office. Many of us have forgotten who we really are.

I have painted a rather dire picture. But there is great movement to “turn the tide,” as evidenced by a coalition of university admissions offices encouraging ethical and intellectual engagement over blind adherence to magazine rankings. As my former colleague wrote in her viral New York Times op-ed, it was kindness – not contortion – that stood out in a young man’s successful application to an Ivy League university. As Frank Bruni said in his book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, where you go is not who you’ll be – or who you are.

However, turning the tide does not have a single solution, nor should it. One first step is to start with compassion and mindfulness – not simply to get into college, but also to experience it with integrity and joy, and to embrace one’s potential with authentically.

Lest we become too cynical that compassion is all well and good after a student earns the 4.0, or that compassion can never be measured on the ACT, there is growing evidence that these are life skills, human skills, that will support their growth and wellbeing well beyond college. The college admissions process is not simply an evaluation of the past, but an investment in one’s future potential – as a scholar and a citizen. As Maslow posed, self-actualization only happens with the demonstration of empathy and compassion for others.

Compassion increases our genuine desire for the well-being of us and others. By generating self-compassion, we are better equipped to reduce internal chatter that we are “not good enough,” a feeling that adults can attest to, and certainly, millions of stressed-out high school students trying to outperform their classmates can as well. Being kinder to ourselves can help relieve some of the undue stress college hopefuls put on themselves that being “good enough” is acknowledged only by the fat envelope of acceptance to one particular university. By generating compassion for others, we can have greater sensitivity to how our behavior affects others. Exercising generosity means a healthier environment where a classmate’s success does not equate to one’s own failure.

An oft-practiced tool to cultivate empathy and compassion is through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness can help us to be more present with less judgement of ourselves and others. Strengthening young people’s ability to do so may help them to better block out external noises telling them that they must have 24 AP classes and a cure for cancer to get into college. It may also help them to pause before pressing the “send” button on an ill-thought out tweet or from boasting that they got less sleep than everyone else. It may also support their ability to persevere and be resilient to pursue the big, hairy, audacious goals that are meaningful to them.

Before folks rush out to pay a consultant to ensure compassion is on their child’s resume, I am not suggesting that having a mindfulness practice means that universities will substitute transcripts for a story on kindness. It isn’t a matter of either-or. One can be compassionate AND driven, kind AND competitive, mindful AND ambitious. A practice of mindfulness and compassion redirects energy from contortion to “get in” to a genuine introspection of who one is and wants to be. It can serve as reminder that the pursuit of higher education is more than a chase for a brass ring whose worth is determined by someone else, and instead, a thoughtful process to find a place where the mind, body, and spirit can thrive. And the reality is that a 16-year old can get “perfect” scores and “perfect” grades and “perfect” activities, and still be rejected from an institution. Mindfulness and compassion are not new age tactics to get a leg up, but rather, practices to help remind us that setbacks are but part of the journey and not a definition of who we – and our children – are.

Redirecting energy from contortion to authentic living may also offer greater emotional wisdom to get outside one’s own head and instead expand a generosity outward, hopefully resulting in a positive impact on others – something many universities seek as they craft a community of scholars and citizens. So, where to start?

  1. Practice self-compassion

We often say things to ourselves we wouldn’t dream of saying to another person. Be generous with and kinder to yourself. Just as the airplane safety video teaches, put the oxygen on yourself before helping others.

  • Sleep

We are only beginning to understand the benefits of sleep on physical and cognitive health. A Ghent study noted that students who slept more than seven hours had 10% higher marks. Want better grades? Forgo the all nighter and put the jammies on.

  • Cultivate a mindfulness practice

Building an everyday practice to be more aware of what is happening without reacting or judging has serious consequences: improved resilience, well-being, focus, and memory. As a wise one once said: do, not try.

Thousands of college admissions officers are eager to minimize anxiety, universities desire kinder communities, employers seek new hires with emotional intelligence, and people are starving for the courage to follow their own North Star. Equipping young people with the tools to cultivate compassion for self and others may help them thrive through a flawed process and well beyond.

How to do so sustainably, effectively, and thoughtfully is a conversation for another day.

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