Competition for College Admission is Ruining Childhood

Yesterday’s New York Times “Motherlode” blog featured an entry about getting girls into college. The blog was a reaction to a recent article on The Daily Beast about how this year’s college application cycle was particularly brutal for “white girls without a hook.” “Hook” is college admissions parlance for that activity or interest that sets you apart, the thing you do better than anyone else. Because there are so many high-achieving white girls and colleges want well-rounded classes, not well-rounded kids, it’s apparently harder for these super-girls to get into the best schools.

The Motherlode blogger, Belen Aranda-Alvarado, thinks her ten-year-old daughter has just the hook she needs: She is a burgeoning equestrian, which creates an unusual combo — a Latina girl from the Bronx who rides horses. Aranda-Alvarado writes: “If my 10-year-old’s experience isn’t a college application essay waiting to be written, I don’t know what is.” She goes on to say, Tiger Mom-like, that she’s so sure this is her kid’s ticket to the big time that she won’t let her opt out:

If she complains it’s too hot to ride? Strap on that helmet, my wee one. She wants to stay after school and play with her friends? Tie on those riding boots, little missy. Grumbles about the subway and train ride to get there? Get. On. That. Horse.

So this is what parenting has come to? Sizing up the hobbies of ten-year-olds for their college application street cred? Viewing our kids’ merit through the small, warped aperture of an admissions officer’s gaze? I had to wonder what a college admissions officer would make of how my six-year-old daughter spent Memorial Day weekend when we visited friends in Vermont. What would her hook have been?

She seemed to excel at rolling down a steep, grassy hill, which she did for hours on end. Her rolling was punctuated by long, drawn-out rests in which she just flopped onto the ground and stayed there, like a rag doll dropped from the wide blue sky. Occasionally, she’d turn a few cartwheels before running back up to start again.

At other times, the candidate could be found digging toys out of the basement storage room and putting them to good use, perhaps most deftly in the case of the child-size sleigh she lugged outside. She demonstrated great persistence in trying to get her two-year-old sister into the sleigh. Failing that, she showed ingenuity by popping her Build-a-Bear birthday bear into it instead, and carting the bear around the yard, rope leash tied to her waist as if she were an Alaskan sled dog.

She also tried — and failed — to catch a fish. First, trying to lure her prey with an old fishing line she found, a rubber worm still attached. Then, by tying the fishing line to a fallen branch and standing for what seemed an inordinately long time alone on the dock, no fish in sight. Later, our host guided her with an actual rod and reel, but she seemed to prefer her early, solitary attempts. (Not to be upstaged by his sister’s fishing, one afternoon her big brother canoed across the lake to forage in the woods for morel mushrooms to eat for breakfast the next day, returning with a bag full of them.)

Should the admissions officer be wondering about the candidate’s athletic ability, it behooves me to mention that she beat her father 38-2 in a game of T-ball, in large part because she kept playing long after he retired to the house for a nap.

In all, the candidate seemed to demonstrate the rare ability to be bored, to find pleasure and purpose outside any organized activity, to flop in the grass without worry or care. Does that count? Sadly, as Aranda-Alvarado would point out, no. None of these activities would turn a college admissions officer’s head, and there isn’t a high school counselor in the world who would say she should write a college application essay about it.

Then again, maybe such a sprawling, unstructured weekend is so rare in this age of tightly managed childhoods that my daughter would truly stand out.

  • Carleton Kendrick

    In these fear-base times, where anxiety-ridden parents steal their children’s childhood, replacing it with micro-managed, over-scheduled, college resume building lives, from preschool through high school, you are giving your young child the invaluable gift of allowing and encouraging her to follow her natural curiosities, her sense of wonder and to experience being bored and temporarily weary from self-initiated play.
    As an alum who has voluntarily interviewed many college applicants and worked hand in hand with an admissions staff, the members of this admissions staff would join me in smiles of approval at your six year-old’s Memorial Day adventures and in offering you their admiration and gratitude.
    Carleton Kendrick
    Family Therapist and Author, “Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s”

  • Lindsey

    I think you know how strongly I feel about this whole topic, and how much I fear it. I think your daughter’s weekend sounds just about perfect. xoxo

  • Susie Watts

    As a private college counselor and the parent of five children, I couldn’t agree with you more. Children need to be children and have plenty of time to explore different activities and interests. They also need unstructured time to do nothing. They do not need to be thinking about college admissions and how their activities might help them get into college. There is plenty of time for that as they get older.

    College Direction
    Denver, Colorado

    • Ranee Mogro

      A great start! I’m looking forward to reading more of your interviews with Women Entrepreneurs. My REAL Women blog also features interviews with female entrepreneurs.

  • Jane Sacasa

    As a private educational consultant, I am convinced that a consistent passion for an endeavor can help girls achieve admissions success. But personal excellence is not often achieved without significant parental emotional support. A former Head of the Brearley School, one of America’s top girls’ schools, once told a group of fathers, “The single best thing fathers can do for their daughters is to play ‘catch’ with them.” Feeling worthy of attention and admired by a father can lead to greater confidence, initiative, perseverance, and resilience later in life. Only a few women get recruited for varsity college teams. However, a competitive sport or other activity, combined with positive encouragement, particularly from a father, may help girls develop personality traits that are manifested in other areas of their lives. Leadership and drive go hand-in-hand with talent in helping girls stand out in the admissions pool.