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Colleges Pushing Students to Do Too Much in High School

An article published in Inside Higher Ed in January by Scott White received much praise by professionals in the field. He is a college counselor in New Jersey who works both in high schools and a small private practice. The article centers on the topic of advice constantly given to high school students to take the most rigorous schedule of courses possible to impress colleges. The article urges colleges to stop advising this because it has created an environment of students trying to outdo each other with the number of Advanced Placement and other college-level courses they take.

I see this all the time. Young adults taking classes they are not excelling in because they feel the pressure from their peers. I tell a story often of when my then 8th grader was signing up for classes in HS. When her friends asked what classes she was taking, they said, "WHY aren't you taking AP Math?" She came home questioning herself to which I remind her, math is not your gift.

The goal of AP/Dual Enrollment courses is to take classes that match your ability and prepares you for college work. I work hard to educate my clients by asking them during the intake processes, "How many hours per night do you study?" When the number is excessive, we have the conversation.

In White's essay, he states there is nothing wrong with encouraging students to take challenging courses. Colleges could alleviate stress and still have plenty of information on which to make their decisions. They should learn from the 2013 research published in The Journal of College Admission Counseling. This research examined college performance by first-year students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a highly competitive flagship university. The study found a strong correlation between students taking up to five college-level courses in high school and their first-year grade point average. More college-level courses -- up to five -- yielded higher academic performance in college. For students taking six or more college-level courses, gains in first-year GPA were marginal or even negative. The average grades for students who had taken 10 college-level courses in high school were the same as those who had taken only five such courses.

I want young adults to compete with themselves, not others. I want them to love learning and be curious about the subject. I do want them to be challenged but I do not want them defining their worth by the number of AP courses they take at the expense of living a balanced life.

A mother said to me, not knowing what I do for a living, that she doesn't allow her young adults to participate in any sports/outside interests because their focus must be on their grades. She was a specialist in her field and obviously knew the academics necessary to excel. But preparing for life after high school involves learning about things you love. Colleges want more than grades. I hear it all the time from admission counselors who speak on panels at conferences to educational professionals. What are you going to contribute to the university? What are you interested in?

White talked about how he's been in the college admission business for 36 years and the remarkable increase in the number of young adults falling apart, burning out, harming themselves and self-medicating. As I prepare to attend the annual career counseling conference this month, I know the topic of stress, anxiety, and depression will continue to be at the forefront of the dialog.

The madness starts with us as parents. Unfortunately, it’s the bottom line. We want the best for our young adults but we must help them know their gifts and encourage them in their strengths. Not in keeping up with unrealistic goals. We must all change the conversation and expectations. Our young adults want it, I promise.

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