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Atherton panel: Stepping off college admissions treadmill

Speakers share ideas for redefining the college-entry process

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Than Healy, head of school at Menlo School in Atherton, asked those who came to hear a Nov. 15 discussion about college admissions to stand if their children had been experiencing "dangerous levels of sleep deprivation, non-ordinary difficulty with emotional regulation," or had "dropped a class or activity they cared deeply about because it wouldn't fit with their idea about what colleges want."

Much of the crowd stood.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.(Courtesy Common Ground)

Harvard educator Richard Weissbourd. (Courtesy Common Ground)

Challenge Success founder Denise Pope.(Courtesy Challenge Success)
"If anyone in our child's life came along and said they'd try to deprive them of health, vitality or happiness we'd fight like crazy, as parents, to prevent that," he said. Instead, by hiring tutors, enrolling students in test prep courses, and hiring outside admissions counselors, "I think we're complicit" in amplifying the stress, he said.

Alluding to the old story that says a frog that would immediately jump out of boiling water won't notice a gradual rise in temperature in time to escape death, Mr. Healy noted: "I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say that the frogs in our community are boiling, and it's sad that some of them are dying."

Families seem to believe their children need to get into a selective elementary school in order to get into a selective middle school in order to get into a selective college "in order to end up with a selective life," he said. "That's as bizarre as anything else, and yet nobody wants to get off the treadmill first," he said.

The panelists Mr. Healy was introducing, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, Harvard educator Richard Weissbourd and Challenge Success founder Denise Pope, had some ideas about how to power off the treadmill. They were part of a Common Ground program called "Turning the Tide: Redefining the College Admissions Process."

Common Ground, a coalition of 31 local schools with 15,000 families, sponsored the program as part of its 15th anniversary celebration

Different definitions of success

Ms. Pope said somehow students no longer seem to have the same definitions of success that their parents do.

She says that when her organization asks parents how they define success for their children their top answers are: happiness, fulfillment and a good spouse.

Ask their children, and the answer is quite different: "The first thing they say is money, and college and test scores and grades," Ms. Pope said.

Mr. Weissbourd said other studies have found the same thing. In one, 50,000 students were asked to rank the importance of being a caring person, being a happy person and achieving success. Nearly 80 percent put achievement or happiness first with only 20 percent choosing caring as most important.

"We are concerned about the messages that kids are getting from adults about what matters in life," he said.

Concerned enough that he authored a report titled "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through the College Admissions Process."

The report, which has been endorsed by officials from 120 colleges and universities, suggests changes in the college admissions process that could emphasize the importance of caring for others while giving students who can't afford tutors or counselors or expensive foreign community service projects a chance to get into competitive colleges.

"You don't really need to go to Costa Rica or Belize," he said. Doing service with a group, not for a group, should be emphasized, he said. "It's the quality of service" that should count, he said.

Among the suggestions in the report are giving students who spend time working to help support their families or providing care for siblings or ill family members credit for that "service." The report also suggests limiting the number of extra-curricular activities students can put on an admissions application to three or four, and limiting the number of advanced placement classes students take to five or six.

The report suggests schools should look at historic data about how well achievement tests such as the SATs predict whether students will succeed in their school, and then use that information to de-emphasize, or eliminate, the use of test scores for admissions.

Acting collectively

"The only way to stop an epidemic is by acting collectively," Mr. Weissbourd said. "This is a way that schools and parents can really stand up."

Childhood is not a practice for adulthood, he said. "Adolescence is this incredible time. It's this wonderful time in life and we are turning it into a treadmill."

The risk you're taking by choosing to step off the treadmill "is maybe ... our kids will get into a good state college and not a highly selective college."

The reality is, only about 4 percent of students go to a selective college and less than 1 percent go to a highly selective college, Mr. Weissbourd said.

Mr. Bruni, the author of "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be," said parents and students put far too much emphasis on the value of getting into the most prestigious schools.

But taking a look at the biographies of successful people often shows that what they have in common "is not diplomas from fancy schools," he said.

Instead, he said, the schools that aren't prestigious often aren't even mentioned in a biography. He used Ted Cruz, who went to Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and Marco Rubio, who attended a community college, the University of Florida and the University of Miami School of Law, as an example.

Both, he said, ended up "in the same place," the U.S. Senate, Mr. Cruz representing Texas and Mr. Rubio, Florida.

Good at getting in

Mr. Bruni said that as a visiting instructor at Princeton University he had students whose classroom work was not as good as the essays they wrote to get into the class. "They are good at getting into things," he said, but seem to believe "you rally your energy to get through the door and what happens in the room matters much less."

Some companies, he said, are now avoiding hiring the graduates of the most selective schools "because they want people who will work hard and humbly." Employers say, he said, they "don't want to deal with that sort of entitlement anymore."

Ms. Pope said avoiding the treadmill is the parent's choice. "If you want what's best for your child, if you truly want them to be successful and fulfilled ... you ultimately have the power," she said.

A good fit

Look for schools that are a good fit for a child and that they know they "have a pretty good chance of getting into," she said, and "things get calm."

"You shouldn't have a school on your list that you're not really excited about," she said. Give your children the message that "in our house, we value well-being more than status and (school bumper) stickers."

What's really important, she said, is to "create human beings who will serve to create a better world."


Additional resource

Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success -- A free website and set of online tools designed to inform students as young as ninth graders, who may not have access to college advisers, how to prepare for college.

Nearly 100 colleges and universities have agreed to accept the website's applications for the 2017-18 school year.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


14 people like this
Posted by Boardermom
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Nov 30, 2016 at 5:27 pm

It seems as if our communities have been talking about getting off the college admissions treadmill for a number of years, but each year it becomes more difficult to get into traditionally selective or traditionally not so selective universities. Ten years ago, a student needed a 3.3 GPA to get in to the University of Michigan. Now it is a 3.8-3.9. Despite the Palo Alto suicides, Stanford's admissions rate keeps getting smaller, with the running joke that admission is now a negative possibility.

In my mind, the not so subtle peninsula parental agenda is to get a kiddo into Stanford University. It begins with finding the right real estate agent who can close an offer in the right public school district, continues with private soccer and basketball coaching, club sports, tutoring, accelerated math, piano lessons, a family trip to Europe, private school admission, test prep, 4-7 AP classes, vacationary mission trips, college essay coaching and shmoosing teachers and family connections for great recommendation letters. Being born a legacy applicant also helps.

I would like to see Stanford University take the lead among all highly selective universities and begin admitting students who have not subscribed to the college treadmill script. What would it be like to admit 1,500 students who are not exceptional, but perhaps more ordinary, but come with stories of poverty, unemployed or absence parents, after school jobs at fast food restaurants, or rising above the crap and oppression that inhabits many public urban high schools? What would be the educational impact to provide more ordinary students with exceptional teaching and propel them into the world, armed with their real world experiences? Hard to say, but I'd like to believe that these students would graduate with more grit, more empathy, and a desire to serve others for the greater good.

3 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 30, 2016 at 6:17 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

One way off the treadmill is for parents to understand that not all children are cut out for college. There's no shame in that. The other way is to open up trade schools again. You have any idea why plumbers and electricians are so expensive and make so much? Because there aren't enough of them. There's no shame in working as a tradesman. They provide a valuable service and they don't need to be college educated.

7 people like this
Posted by Village person
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Nov 30, 2016 at 7:28 pm

The focus on elite universities is a bit outdated but has become more prominent as people buy into the notion that somehow attending an Ivy or Stanford will define them for life. There is some truth to the notion many fields such as private equity are heavily inhabited by grads of elite schools, and it may prove easier to access top tier professional programs coming from such a school. That being said success in life is not defined by where you graduated. The vast majority of the successful people in this world did not attend an elite college or university. Many of those that attend are very ordinary people , not any different from the many who though qualified we're not admitted. Much of this arms race of tutors and cram courses and resume building has become big business and it contributes to the high stress drudgery that many kids think is normal for a 16 year old. I feel sorry for these kids. No wonder they are unhappy. The teen suicide rate reflects this unhealthy dynamic.

5 people like this
Posted by Arrgghhhh !!!!
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 1, 2016 at 3:37 pm

The local schools are complicit. I have raised the homework overload with our kid's school a couple times, and the message I get back is that "but other parents haven't complained" or something to the effect of "it's your kid's fault that s/he is not very efficient, or doing homework until 10-11pm and doesn't finish it all"

Schools and teachers have seriously unrealistic expectations of how long it takes many students to do all their assignments, and how much available time the kids have after sports/music/chores/family activities. Kids don't have time to breath.

6 people like this
Posted by Arrgghhhh !!!!
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 1, 2016 at 3:44 pm

To Menlo Voter and other folks with similar opinions "oh they can just go to trade school"

Of course that's a great option, but ignores the fact of life here that college and grad school educated people in the US do make substantially more money that the typical non-college educated adult. Only so many people have the aptitude for highly skilled trades as well.

With the insane cost of living around here, people have little choice but to seek out careers that will at least pay enough to rent a local apartment. It takes a degree and luck for most people.

The rat race has escalated to a frenzy. I'm personally ready to leave the bay area, but my family is not. So we stay and pay through the nose and throw our kids to the wolves.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 1, 2016 at 7:51 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.


that's great. You "throw our kids to the wolves." That's just lovely. Not all children are cut out for college. If we don't start training our future plumbers and electricians we are going to end up paying through the nose for that work to be done. Go ahead, throw your kids to the wolves. I'm not willing to do that and I find it disgusting that there are those like you who would.

3 people like this
Posted by MPCSD/Atherton resident
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Dec 1, 2016 at 9:15 pm

MPCSD/Atherton resident is a registered user.

@ arrgghhhh!!!!

Completely agree with you on the homework situation. This may not help you depending on how old your child(ren) are, and where your child(ren) are enrolled, but informed by a large body of recent research, Oak Knoll Elementary in the MPCSD has significantly reduced the homework load. There are also efforts by parents at Hillview Middle School to ensure students aren't experiencing excessive stress from excessive homework. Hopefully those efforts will have some impact. The high school homework load, particularly in Junior year, is outrageous! I don't know about any efforts to reduce it, but seems like surveying the parent population about this topic would be a great idea.

I fully understand your frustration. We're all trying to to do what we feel is best for our children. Try not to let Menlo Voter's comment get to you.

1 person likes this
Posted by Ex Menlo Park parent
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2016 at 1:03 pm

I hate to say that these discussions about homework have been going on for years. My kids graduated from Hillview in 1993 and 1997 and we had long meetings about the amount of homework, whether it was worth it or not, how to relieve the stress, etc. So I suppose nothing really changes. The teachers at Hlllview did have the students track their days for about two weeks and were appalled at how much time the students 'worked' - from the time they got to school, did the school day, sports or whatever, homework - they were 'working' some 50 hours a week...I don't know if it's the same now but might be a good idea to do that again.

Like this comment
Posted by Westbrook
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 2, 2016 at 11:42 pm

Westbrook is a registered user.

For what it's worth,

If you're grooming your kids for Universities like Stanford, I use to rent a house to some people that were in the admissions department at Stanford.

I asked them how do they decide who gets in when they have 5 times more applicants than openings that are, class presidents, valedictorians, top athletes, champions of the chess club, school paper editors, multilingual, having travelled, or several of the above combined, get the point,

In a simple one line answer

He said "What we are looking for are kids that "Want to change the world"

So when you're filling out those applications, yes you need to check some of the boxes above, but add a page explaining how your child is different and their plan to change the world.

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