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A College Consultant’s Grown-Up Christmas List

Amy Grant’s touching rendition of Grown-Up Christmas List was omnipresent on the radio this season. I welcomed it, far more than the slaphappy holiday fare that glosses over the complex lives we all lead, textured with joy and pain, gain and loss, peace laced with worry and uncertainty. No holiday is as pure and simple as the songs portray it. As a college consultant, I share my students’ disappointments  as well as joys, and December is a bittersweet time. While many seniors are accepted Early Action, some are not. When Early Decision apps are deferred or denied, the sting is especially painful.

In Admissions Matters, December heartbreak is vividly described: “The problem with an early application denial is that it usually occurs in isolation, and also at holiday time…students usually apply early to only one college, and those who receive denials have no simultaneous acceptances to ease the blow” (Springer et al, p. 215).

But acceptance stress is only one kind of trial that students face in December. So here is my grown-up Christmas list:

1. I wish students and families were free to separate a young person’s self-esteem from acceptance at a specific school. There is a suitable higher education choice for every individual. Our society is so preoccupied with prestige, symbolized by material wealth or college pedigree.

But it is unrealistic to expect that “baby boomlet” children of “boomer” parents who graduated from elite colleges can get into those same schools today (i.e., growing demand vs. static supply). Even academic stars will face rejection unless they adjust expectations. There are only 8 Ivies, but 2500 4-year institutions in the USA: your kid’s gotta get in somewhere! As a separate issue, many kids do not possess interests or skills that fit with 4-year schools.  But they also have plenty of choices, among 1700 2-year schools that are more focused on career training. Despite our culture’s disdain for vocational education, many kids will be happier, and more likely to get jobs in this economy, if they learn medical technology instead of archaeology. With apologies to Indiana Jones, how many archaeologists do we really need?

Look, if everyone wants to go to the same restaurant the same night, someone will be disappointed. No reason to lose self-esteem: it’s just supply & demand. If we truly “got” that, the college process would be more about discovering one’s unique “fit”, and less about “getting in.” I wish parents could gear their kids to find a school where they’d thrive and find their way, without a feeling of failure if rejected by a “hot” school that is probably not a good fit anyway.

2. I wish students would start preparing for college earlier. WHAT? you say. It’s already stressful enough, starting spring of junior year. Hold on! I don’t mean taking SAT’s in kindergarten or visiting campuses in utero. I mean, simply thinking about the future. Some teen athletes know all about their physical capabilities and how to improve to switch to a more desirable position or team. But if you ask about their academic abilities, or what they imagine doing for a living someday, you get a blank stare…

Not that an adolescent should have this all worked out now, but it would be nice to at least have a clue. Only in the USA is it acceptable to apply “undeclared.” Why are European teens able to pick an occupational focus but Americans are not? At minimum, a student can prepare by earning good grades. All colleges want that, even if the applicant doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. So my second wish is that parents would urge their students to start getting good grades–early.

3. I wish standardized tests were not timed. We hear about time accommodation for learning disabilities (LD’s). Do more kids have LD’s today than back in the fifties? Are they just more frequently diagnosed? Or, as simplistic cynics insist on cruelly proposing, are they just an excuse for poor motivation?

My instinct says, when a problem is epidemic, there’s a broad-based cause. But I doubt the answer is that every American suddenly just decided to become lazy. Someday scientists may figure out that LD’s are linked to environmental toxins, food supply, or an ubiquitous force that has only become prevalent in the past 50 years.

Meanwhile, the movement to obtain LD extra time accommodations has unearthed a concern that was always there for some students: PARALYZING TEST ANXIETY. Someday we may learn that families who go to great lengths to obtain accommodations were actually trying to help a kid with severe test anxiety. If tests were not timed, LD students could demonstrate their true potential without jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Untimed testing could also measure the true potential of a much broader sector of students, those who suffer from test anxiety.

My guess is, there is one group of test-takers, high academic/low anxiety, who excel, timed or not. Another group, low academic/low anxiety, test poorly, timed or not. But two groups, high academic/high anxiety and low academic/high anxiety, may do significantly better if not timed. Non-timed tests would measure the true potential of these students. A 1995 study by Onwuegbuzie & Seaman, The Effect of Time Constraints and Statistics Test Anxiety on Test Performance in a Statistics Course, concluded: “Both low- and high-anxious students performed better… under the untimed condition… However, the benefit of the untimed examination was greater for high-anxious students than for low-anxious students.”

But they need to test your ability to think under pressure, don’t they? I say, Why? If you aspire to become MacGyver, diffusing bombs while seconds tick away, then timed testing is a good predictor of career success. But as a marketing executive, I never had to make a decision with a stopwatch ticking. So what’s the point of a timed test? Sure, I was one of those nervous test takers. It is amazing how I ever got three Ivy League degrees, because I choked on the SAT’s, GRE’s and GMAT’s. My scores weren’t disastrous, but they always underpredicted my higher education performance.

If test anxiety is a cause of underestimation of college success in the population at large, it will be worse among disadvantaged groups without the luxury of paid tutors to help them practice under timed conditions. If standardized testing was originally adopted to “level the playing field,” this is one more dimension in which the wealthy win and the less affluent lose.

I have often comforted a Position U 4 College client who earns excellent grades, yet cannot overcome test anxiety. But recently in a pro bono setting, a terrific young woman from the inner city, a hard-working student with fine grades, was denied at a school due to low test scores. She had studied a workbook (tutoring was out of the question), but her scores were still too low. “Do you get nervous taking the SAT’s?” I asked. Fighting back tears, she nodded. “I always did, too,” I said.

That’s why this is my third grown-up Christmas wish.

Related Posts: December 15 College News: Deferral or Denial, Your Target Colleges–And It’s a Moving Target, Parents of 11th Graders: Get Set for “Junior College Night!” What Is Important to Colleges? Top Ten Factors.