College admissions capitalizing on worry?

In a country whose economy depends to a great degree on hype, it's not surprising that school grades have been swept into the mix. There's been concern about grade inflation - students getting better grades than the same work might have earned years ago. But my concern is due to the inflation and hype over the importance of grades in education these days.

Many young people are in the midst of college application mania or are waiting for news from their chosen colleges. And I have been a resentful participant in this mania, during my son's critical junior year, the year in which students need to achieve a certain grade point average and set of SAT scores for many colleges.I have felt like a hyperactive border collie nipping at my son's heels to get him to take care of every little step in this questionable process.

I know there are many students who have their own panic attacks and stress reactions. In our house I seemed to be having them for my son. On the other hand, I know of households in which the craziness is a family affair.

Being able to make us worry seems to be the mark of success for any modern advertising campaign: worry about thinning hair, indigestion, and emerging wrinkles. If we don't worry, we don't buy. We are made to worry, so that all the SAT preparation programs will have customers. So that colleges can have so many applicants that they can reject more and advertise how selective they are.

My son and I once discussed this issue, and his perspective was, "High school seems to be about grades; college is about learning."

Unfortunately, I can see why he might draw that conclusion. He has had some good teachers in high school and has learned some content. But he has also learned to focus more on classes where the grade is most important for college admission, and to focus less on classes where the content may be valuable but is less critical for college admission. What is lost in this process is hard to measure.

Some of the things that make him a fine person and a great candidate for college are not ones you get grades for. Otherwise, he'd get an "A" for navigating a huge, diverse high school and making friends in every group. An "A" for occasionally stepping in to protect another student in a way that helped to resolve a conflict. An "A" for bouncing back from disappointments. An "A" for practicing daily with a football team on which he knew he would probably never get playing time. An "A" for optimism and enthusiasm. An "A" for common sense and good judgment. And most important - an "A" for patience with his mother as she struggles - not always calmly - to help him deal with a very flawed system.

Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

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