Why not to stress about which college you get into

First published with some modifications in The Hindu on February 23, 2019

If you are a student, a word of caution – don’t throw your books and flip on Netflix just yet, do read on and get the whole point I am making.

If you are a parent, let me qualify that I run a career and college counselling firm and it is my job to help kids get into the best colleges they can. So do read on and get the subtle distinction I am making between “best” colleges and “best-fit”colleges.

Which colleges do you aim for?

The best college is really a relative term. It could be St Stephens or Stanford, IIT Powai or NTU in Singapore, Ashoka in Sonepat or IISc in Bangalore. It really depends on how you define your goals. What’s common about these colleges is that they are best in class and very selective in who they admit. Students who make it into these often experience a sense of glory similar to Olympic gold medalists. Parents feel a tremendous sense of validation on how they brought up their kids.

Naturally, then, those that aim for but don’t make this exalted list – or its extended companions (Ivy League and top ranked colleges across India and the world) – have a sense of “averageness” that could even amount to failure.

This scale of high-stakes outcomes and high-pitched reactions translates into performance pressure much before students actually finish school. FIITJEE and Vidya Mandir become real options with entrance tests to prepare for and potentially be rejected by. The Practice SAT becomes an option and so do a host of college counseling services. Extra curriculars no longer are sources of engagement and self-development but CV Building tools – like points to collect for that big moment of reckoning coming up in Grade 12.

Students begin to see themselves as products being positioned for the eventual auction and measure each other by their potential college value. She is a topper, he’s got MUN, she has her squash medals, he has published a book (!), she is sports captain and so on.

Whats wrong with a little pressure?

I have known parents to argue that they are preparing students for success. Giving them a taste of the real-world, honing their talents, teaching them to measure themselves by the achievements (which is a bit like measuring adults by their bank balance but lets not go there).

What’s wrong is that this approach may create false ideas of worth or worthlessness in students. The gravest of these mistakes is to equip a 16 year old with a sense of failure even before they leave home to be on their own. This would manifest in thoughts like “There is no way I will get into a good college” which often translates into statements like “I have not done anything worthwhile” by students who are getting above average grades in school, playing national level tournaments, reading avidly, writing poetry and volunteering at dog shelters. It’s just not good enough.

One in four Indian teenagers suffers from depression, according to a 2017 World Health Organisation (WHO) report on the Mental Health Status of Adolescents in South-East Asia. The 2016 National Mental Health Survey of India showed mental disorders to be nearly double in urban metros than rural areas.

And what is causing this stress? A study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine in 2017 pegs pessimism and past failure to be the main sources of depression among school-going adolescents. Another study in the Australian Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology noted that parental pressure for better performance was the chief source of stress in Indian high school students with middle-class urban students being the worst affected.

So how important is the ranking of your college for future success?

Luckily, not much. Here is a quick look at some anecdotal but compelling data. The Economic Times 40 Under 40 list gives us a look at contemporary leaders from inMobi, Oyo, Puma India, Hindalco, Endemol Shine India, Bira, Lowe Lintas, Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, Mobikwik, Zomato, Jabong-Myntra and Bain & Co. And the colleges they went to include IITs Kanpur, Kharagpur and Delhi, Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University Bihar, Maharishi Dayanand University Rohtak, SIBM Pune, Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago, Mumbai University, Indian Law Society’s Law College Pune, Barkatullah Vishwavidyalaya Bhopal and Presidency College, Kolkata. The list is a testimony to the caliber of these people themselves and not a listing of India’s Top Colleges – barring a spattering of IITs.

The international story is not so different. In his bestselling book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, Frank Bruni tracks where the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies went to college and the following list shows up: University of Arkansas; University of Texas, University of California Davis, University of Nebraska, Auburn, Texas A&M, Kettering University, University of Kansas, Dartmouth College and the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Just one Ivy League school. Fewer than a third of US Senators have undergrad degrees from Ivy or Highly selective colleges (including Donald Trump who went to Fordham College). Bruni himself, who has written two best-selling books before this, graduated from the University of North Carolina.

Is it okay, then, to stop studying and chill out?

Economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale have researched the “return to college selectivity” or the differential in earnings that can be attributed to how selective a college the student went to. Their research indicates the correlation between the ranking of the college and a student’s earning is close to zero if you adjust for school grades, student ambitions, SAT scores and parental background.

In plain English that means that students who performed well is school, aimed high, got good SAT grades and came from enabling family backgrounds performed well in life irrespective of which college they finally went to.

The good news here is that all this stress for cracking that dream college on students and parents may be largely misplaced. However, working hard and getting good grades is still highly likely to indicate future success. So, here is a clichéd bit of advice – aim for the best but don’t worry about the outcome so much. If you aim for success, no college can stop you from getting there.

— Richa Dwivedi Saklani

Richa leads Inomi Learning and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to 21st Century Careers (Hachette India, 2017)

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