In the Seattle area, college competitiveness is heating up. As the population boom of high-paid tech workers continues in the region, an unintended consequence has been increased competitiveness in college admissions. The influx of tech workers has brought with it an increasing demand for STEM majors in college.
Parents are looking for every possible advantage when it comes to best positioning their child for success during college applications. Some families are preparing their students as early as middle school by having them take advanced math classes, hiring private college counselors, and meticulously crafting what extracurriculars need to be taken to have the best shot at the coveted Ivy League schools.
However, this motivation can often be influenced by misinformed parents with students applying for the first time in the American college admissions system.
Among all the college admissions hype and competition, the underlying reason for the existence of high school seems to be vanishing. High school is supposed to be a time when students not only learn theoretical concepts but also practical skills that set them up for success in the future.
There is little evidence to support that attending top universities will lead to guaranteed success. Parents in the region should not have to look further than their own colleagues to realize that the degree-granting institution eventually matters very little. What matters most is a student’s capability to create their own opportunities and explore their interests in high school, college, and beyond.
For over a year, I have been leading a startup, Cledge, to democratize college counseling and increase access to personalized information. The goal is to better educate families about the college admissions process and put life beyond college into perspective.
I have talked with many parents and students about the college application process and answered hundreds of questions. Parents constantly ask me, “what extracurriculars can my child do to improve their chances for admission?”
While this is a valid thought, I strongly believe that this is putting too much focus on the college admissions result compared to the essential learnings that should happen in high school. I have come across too many students who are currently participating in activities for the sole reason of increasing college admissions chances.
The U.S. Department of Labor has stated that “65% of today’s students will be employed in jobs that have yet to be invented.”
The onset of the pandemic is a prime example of how quickly situations can change. During this time, many students were unable to participate in traditional extracurricular activities. However, students well equipped with the skills needed to adapt, innovate, and lead were able to build out their own opportunities within the new constraints to not only stand out but drive change. I’ve noticed that these students were often provided general guidance, not formulaic guidance, better preparing them to drive their own experiences. Over-focus on the end goal of college acceptance is discouraging students from exploring interests and building essential skills to be successful changemakers in their future careers.
Unfortunately, the formulaic-type approach to college admissions is gaining a lot of traction in the area. Many students are overwhelmed by the responsibility and pressure of preparing for college admissions starting in 9th grade. The reality is that much of this pressure is unnecessary as there is no formula to guarantee admissions.
This hyper-competitiveness is leading to extreme levels of stress among students and peers within high schools, often extinguishing the classical high school experience loved by most around the country into one that is dominated by 18-hour days. It is not uncommon for students to sleep past midnight as they balance extracurriculars and college-level coursework in high school, leaving little room for relaxation or self-exploration.
It is likely inevitable that the competition locally will continue to pick up. However, with this increased competition comes great responsibility for families to determine themselves what road to future success they want their student to take.
Admission to a top 20 school is not the only way to be set up for success but is rather one of many opportunities available for students to pursue. In fact, Big Tech locally has invested millions of dollars to revamp computer science programs at other local college options. Most recently, Amazon will be investing $3 million across three different local technical and community colleges offering four-year programs focused on computer science. It’s yet another example of how local companies are re-investing into the community to find the brightest talented individuals — realizing that not all top talent emerges from name-brand schools.
In recent years, the definition of success for families in the Pacific Northwest has become closely tied with college prestige. However, this success metric is misplaced. Just as students are taught for years of their life that their success is measured by a single number — GPA — families are now under the impression that success after high school can only be measured by college prestige.
However, just as GPA has been proven to not be the only success metric, college prestige is also not the only factor. This is not to say that working hard is wrong, but rather should be a component of how success is achieved.
It’s important to have conversations within your family about what success actually means, without influence from what colleges or others want you to think. Success might include fulfillment from work, a path to financial stability, or even focusing on the process of learning and its impact rather than solely the grade tied with it.
Defining these metrics beforehand will help your student focus on what they value rather than what society wants them to value. Doing so will allow your student to maintain a fulfilled healthy lifestyle where they are passionate about their education and journey while they work toward their own version of success.