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Reducing Achievement-Related Stress

Ways schools can help students find a healthy balance during the college admissions process

April 4, 2019
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Across the country, high school students feel pressure to gain admission to as many colleges possible, get the largest scholarships, and attend the most prestigious institutions — a pressure that can conflict with developing a sound ethical character. How can educators — who often also feel a great deal of pressure to make sure their students are set up for long-term success — refocus students, and help them find the healthy balance between academic achievement and personal development?

A new report [PDF] from Making Caring Common, a project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, digs into this question, as well as the role parents can play in keeping the college admissions process sane and constructive for their children. The report, the second in MCC’s Turning the Tide series on college admissions, calls on parents and high schools to put character and wellbeing at the center of the college process.

We’ve excerpted following recommendations, which draw on dozens of interviews with students, parents, and educators, as well as two nationwide surveys.

Advice for High School Educators

Emphasize and facilitate meaningful service experiences. Help connect students with service experiences that allow them to contribute to their communities, including activities focused on their own school, like working to prevent bullying.

Focus on at-home caring, too. Not all students will have the bandwidth to engage in community service outside the school hours because they are supporting their families through jobs or childcare — but help frame these activities, too, as opportunities to develop compassion, selflessness, perseverance, and respect. Help students recognize the value in these contributions to their family and report them to colleges.

Celebrate daily acts of character. Emphasize character development and the importance of caring for others. “At a minimum, schools might provide guidelines to school counselors and teachers that both help them assess the capacities that comprise ethical character and that guide them in describing these capacities in recommendations,” write the Turning the Tide authors. Remind students that in addition to highlighting academic achievement in their applications, they should also highlight what type of people they are.

Expose students to a wide range of colleges and deemphasize selectivity. Ultimately, going to college shouldn’t be about prestige — it’s about preparation for lifelong success. Accordingly, share facts about job satisfaction and well-being from students at a wide range of colleges, and talk about alternative paths to different careers, recognizing that everyone is different. 

Create a balanced culture. “Educators might consider creating clear guidelines that prevent students from overloading on high level (AP/IB/Advanced) courses each year,” the Making Caring Common researchers write. “As part of this effort, schools should intentionally survey students, faculty, and parents on an ongoing basis to assess homework loads, pace of life and student well-being and engagement. Based on the results schools should establish appropriate limits that reduce stress and lead to more meaningful engagement in courses and activities and adapt these limits as needed.”

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