Published Online: November 7, 2001
Published in Print: November 7, 2001, as Private Schools

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Application Jitters

It wasn't a typical letter home to high school parents. There were no newsy tidbits about school events. This letter carried one message: Stop the insanity.

It was phrased much more gently than that. But the letter, sent in late September by the leaders of 19 Washington-area private schools, urged parents to turn down the pressure on their teenagers as college-application season crests.

"The high school years are important for many reasons unrelated to college admission," the letter said. "We want to make sure that your child's life (and yours!) does not become consumed by decisions based solely on the college-admissions process."

The school leaders suggested, among other advice, that families "value high school as important in and of itself"; "enter the process with an open mind, remembering that excellent colleges come in all shapes, sizes, and locations"; and "remember that the ultimate goal of being an educated person is possible by traveling may different paths."

Principals and headmasters at the schools were worried that the combination of standardized tests, college-admission tests, and college applications was putting students under almost unbearable pressure.

Some teenagers take the Preliminary SAT in 9th grade, 10th grade, and again in 11th grade, and take the SAT one or more times, said Robert Lauder, the principal of the 460-student upper school at Sidwell Friends School in Washington. Others fall asleep in class because they were out late at test-preparation class, said Mr. Lauder, who first brought his colleagues together to talk about application angst.

The school leaders agreed that high schoolers were becoming so obsessed with their futures that they were unable to enjoy the here and now.

"What they lose is the last year of unofficial childhood," Mr. Lauder said. "The senior year should be a great, free, wonderful, exploratory year for kids—and it's turning into boot camp for college."

To that end, Sidwell Friends cut back on the number of test- preparation courses it offers and no longer gives a "practice" PSAT. It also co- signed the letter home to thousands of parents.

Betsy Downes, the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, saw the letter as a welcome shift of tone.

"These kids are young," she said. "If they are constantly told how incredibly important this is for them, it makes them think, 'Oh my God, I'd better not screw this up.' I love the fact that the message [of the letter] is 'gather the rosebuds today.'"

—Catherine Gewertz cgewertz@epe.org

Vol. 21, Issue 10, Page 14

Web Resources
  • "These Colleges May Be Better Than You Think," from the Wall Street Journal's College Journal, Oct. 24, 2001. Reporter Elizabeth Bernstein comments on the increased intensity and selectiveness of the college admissions process, and discusses the "new American safety schools" for top high school students.

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