Haste Makes Waste: The Scourge of Early Decision

In an old Newsweek column, using a novel titled, Acceptance, by Susan Coll as a backdrop, George Will mused about the college admissions “craziness”. The novel chronicles the pre-college world of a bright kid in a high-rent neighborhood of families where getting into the “right” college is nothing short of a compulsion. While the novel is fiction, it mirrors life pretty closely.

The college admissions arena is very competitive particularly among the most selective colleges. That is bad enough. But when you fuel this already-combustible mix with the energy of parents who really believe that the U.S. News & World Report’s rating of their kid’s college somehow validates their parenting (which it often doesn’t) and when Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) are added to this toxic mix, the atmosphere becomes explosive. The latter is less toxic than the former but it is toxic nonetheless.

Frank Bruni, one of my favorite New York Times columnists, recently published a piece decrying the practice of early college decision and the havoc it creates on families across the land. His article correctly described ED and EA as key ingredients to making what is already a challenging and endlessly stressful time for students and their parents exponentially worse. Students sweat the outcome because it is a key part in their self-esteem mosaic and a factor in their perceived validation of their worthiness vis a vis their parents. Most parents will deny this but they may have forgotten what motivated them when they were 17 or 18. They too wanted their parents to be proud of them and what better way to do that than to get admitted to Yale or Harvard even though the student may have had nothing in common with either college. Almost across the board parents see ED and EA as timely validation of their success as parents and a celebration of their genetic pedigrees. It isn’t but they think it is. Moreover, it makes for great cocktail party conversation with their peers. It is all unseemly and largely harmful and one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand the downside of ED and EA.

But what no one seems to point out is a far more important reason ED and EA are just another folly perpetrated by very educated people who ought to know better.

I am a strong advocate of putting off the college choice until the last minute and this is why: High School seniors are first and foremost adolescents and as such they are at varying stages of mental development most of which happens in the frontal cortex of the brain. That process which is at its height in adolescence affects choices, risk-taking and a host of social preferences. What a student might love in September of the senior year in high school, he/she may loathe in June. It is all part of a very normal maturation process that every one of us endures as we grow up. It is neither good nor bad; it just is what it is.

Articles and scholarly studies abound about the subject. One published study by B.J Casey and Rebecca Jones is a good place to start. In their study, Neurology of the Adolescent Brain and Behavior (2010), they directed attention to the impact of late adolescence neurobiology changes on risk-taking behavior. But whatever the outcome focus of the study, the underlying causal effect is the often dramatic behavioral preferences triggered by still-developing brains in all of us during late adolescence.

Reason would dictate that any system that forces teenagers to make a life-altering choice too early in that process may end badly in the form of unhappy students and the impact of sadness, confusion and often anger on their further development not to mention the more tangible effect of added time and expense that parents have to deal with as a direct result of a poor college choice fueled by the misdirected imperatives of ED and EA.

Some colleges double down on insensitively taxing an adolescent mind in transition. Not only do they want a young person to ignore the unpredictable changes in late adolescence regarding a college setting but they also demand that a student declare a major prior to admission. How many of us knew what we wanted to do in life at 17 or 18? And for those of us who did make that commitment, if we could relive that choice point, how many of us would have followed that same path? College should be the place one goes to find out what he or she wants to do with life as an adult. What better place to begin the search in earnest than college because as a byproduct of that search a student will also gain the kind of cultural and technical knowledge that will enhance life over and above any vocational choice. Everything else being equal, well- educated people will not only be better professionals whatever their career but they will have other interests outside that work-a-day world that will enrich their lives while also providing knowledge and skills that will allow them to seamlessly make a career change in the event of burnout, downsizing or technological advances.

The better path is this: Have your student learn as much as possible about the world of college in general. Start by visiting colleges nearby and on vacations just to get an idea of what college is. Surfing the internet is also a good idea. When they see something they like about any college, they should add that attribute to their college “wish list” so that over a protracted period of time a prototype of a make-believe college with their name on it begins to emerge. As the student changes, the model college can be altered to fit.

Remember, at the post-secondary level, a class is a class is a class. Once you walk into a college class and close the door, you could be at Harvard or a small private college or even a more cost-effective public college. Great teachers come in all sizes and in all centers of learning and so do uninspiring teachers. Remember too, that unless the student is pre-med or engineering, a busy day on campus would entail maybe three hours in class and the remaining 21 hours is spent on campus. Thus, for any student, the college experience should focus on that out-of-class environment since it is by far the greatest time segment and some would suggest the most important component of the college experience. That having been said, the student should design the perfect college for him or her during the high school years and should choose colleges based on their considered judgment and not on the reputation or positioning on the best-colleges lists which are developed to sell magazines without any particular regard to the student’s true character and interests.

It is pretty easy to discover to what extent the student is designing the perfect college. At the end of the day, look at the list of colleges on the student’s wish list. If the student is actually looking for a great fit, the list of colleges should be very similar…ambiance, mix of students, size, facilities, social life, etc. When that happens a parent can be confident that whichever colleges from that list accept the student, the college mirrors the student’s social needs as well as the academic requirements. Moreover, no college is 100% perfect but if the choice of the college is the result of the student’s preferences and not someone else’s, even when the college isn’t perfect, the student will make it work as a validation of his own judgment. When a student is sent kicking and screaming to a college where there was outside or parental pressure to attend, the parents will hear about every imperfection, every bump in the road for the four or more years the student has to endure in a place not of his own choosing.

By delaying the final college choice to the last minute, even at the possible cost of losing a room deposit, the student enhances the chances to find the best fit since there is only a short time frame of two or three months between decision time and actual attendance at the college. In an ED situation the time between decision and attendance is 9 or 10 months during which many changes may occur in the student which often leads to buyers’ remorse or worse.

As a long-time college aficionado I have watched in consternation and sadness as students are forced to forgo a normal adolescence because of the pressure their parents exert to get into the “right” colleges. I have born witness to a process that tears families apart and leads to cynicism and disillusion when the student finally reaches his parent-driven goal only to discover that it didn’t justify the sacrifice. Was it worth missing most of your young life and the activities kids should be doing? Does living a pre-college, programmed life at such an early age really produce creative, well-adjusted adults? Adolescence is a key part of human development. Everyone must go through it. Some wisely do it in their teens but others who have been denied its wonder and uncertainties will surely reclaim it but it will be in their forties. The symptoms are likely to be abandonment of family and careers to become a care-free “beach bum” on Bora Bora.

Parents need to be parents, full of unconditional love and respect for their children. The latter means that there has to be enough freedom in the family to allow the children to find their own passion and their own direction in life. That search will produce more creative, more independent and more well-adjusted and confident adults than all of the supervised agenda-laden coaching by upwardly mobile parents and their handsomely-paid agents. Is a self-serving boast at a cocktail party really worth that much pain?

College is great but so is hanging out with friends and just doing stuff that may not have any particular social value. There are terrific colleges all over the nation and most of them will embrace your son or daughter “as is” and provide him or her with all sorts of opportunities for an excellent education. So relax and celebrate your kids as they are. Try focusing on character and the magic contained in each day. The rest will work out just fine.

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