Another College Admissions Cycle

Social media is full of posts from those recently admitted to colleges’ early admissions programs. Smiles, proud parents and achievements justly-deserved.

But, there’s a dark side to it all.

Recently, someone told me about another suicide attempt at Harvard College. It’s an open secret that colleges’ mental health service offerings cannot keep up with demand. Adam Grant recently wrote about yet another student getting depressed about receiving an A- (his op-ed here). 

It’s an arms race out there, as more and more kids strive to specialize. Here’s what one college-consulting firm has on its web site: “Well-rounded students who excel in sports, music, community service, and more are not what highly selective colleges are seeking.”

Hence, the rise of the specialists.

That means children playing the same sport year-round and undergoing multiple surgeries due to wear and tear while in high school. It means kids embarking on year-round science projects that consume nights and weekends to compete at the national level. It means kids cramming multiple lives into one but having little room to do other things, let alone to “just be.”

It also can mean a lot of stressed-out kids, the use of Adderall, alcohol abuse while still young, and parents overseeing their children’s decisions to maximize college-admissions chances.

I think it’s natural for parents to want what is best for their children. But, I think helicoptering has adverse long-term effects, particularly if a parent is vicariously living through a child.

For example, I spoke to some Yale students a few years ago and had dinner with a number of them beforehand. I was stunned by how anxious they seemed. It was a real and visceral vibe, and it surprised me and left me feeling sad.

And, as another example, I’ve had quite a few conversations with parents who are disappointed with their children. They’re at great schools, but are not at College X or College Y.

Third example: Sadly, there has been a spate of suicides at Northwestern this year (here).

Fourth example: The most popular course ever taught at Yale? One on happiness (details here).

Last example: Some applicants embellish their personal challenges in order to get noticed (here).

As a VC who has spent over 20 years in the business, I certainly see that specialists do well. But, here’s something I’ve learned: Generalists do the best. People with multiple skill sets, great people skills, and personal flexibility tend to be the best leaders. Specialists can do well, but senior executives from what I’ve seen, tend to be generalists. 

Our family believes in the generalist model. So, we never pushed our children to pursue narrow paths. That’s because of this belief: Our children’s long term interests are not aligned with college admissions offices. The latter are incentivized to minimize admissions acceptance rates and to maximize yields. I don’t think my children’s happiness is of major interest, if at all.

So, we encouraged our kids to try different things and go out of their comfort zones. We thought it was how they would learn who they were as people. We did so knowing full well that generalists do not fare as well at college admissions, particularly if you’re white or of Asian descent. 

We told them to be who they are and not cater to what they think admissions officers want. After all, what if they crafted a false self and were accepted? Did they want people to fall in love with a mask?

It all worked out.

With two children now in college, we now have the benefit of observing them and their former high school classmates navigate college life. Some of their friends are very happy. Some are not. 

A few (exceptionally bright, kind and thoughtful people) have hit the wall. Parents are no longer there to helicopter them, they are at schools with great brands but are not a fit, or they’re just plain burned out from facing even stiffer academic talent, this time gathered from the entire globe.

They realize that they have moved from one treadmill to an even faster one.

I’m happy and relieved that our two college-aged children are happy and thriving. They owned the college admissions process. Mrs. T. and I offered support and did our best to stay out of their way (our lessons learned here). 

As a parent, this is the goal: Not College X or Ivy Y, but productive, honorable and happy children.

2 thoughts on “Another College Admissions Cycle

  1. Thanks for sharing such an honest view of the process – I remember well one of my interviews at an Ivy League back in 1990 when the interview officer said to me “We like pointy people here” ie. Specialists.
    In the past 25+ years, the points of only gotten sharper and sharper and the arms race to be a specialist is in long run only going to create a very unhappy generation of people who can’t find purpose and meaning in their life beyond their “one point”.

    1. Hi Anne, that’s a great point about pointiness (no pun intended). I think the college campus vibe has changed so much over the past few decades. The rise of the specialists I think has given rise to even more perfectionism among our young adults.

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