I love grocery shopping. I go almost every day. Choosing fresh
produce makes me happy, as does finding dinner at the salad bar once or
twice a week. Comparing prices at the five different grocery store
chains near me so I don’t overpay for anything is a fun challenge. I
like chatting with the cashiers.
I’ve been doing my own grocery shopping since the early 1980s and
haven’t made the ‘paper or plastic?’ decision for over 35 years. It all
goes into my backpack and occasionally an extra sack I bring from home.
Not taking a store bag when shopping is one of many rules I’ve added to
my life under the “Don’t forget there are 8 billion people on the
I have thousands of rules about how to live my life. We all do.
They’re kind of like computer coding we’ve written for ourselves that
helps us decide how to interact with the world, and the individual
combinations of rules we’ve chosen are part of what makes us unique.
Many of these rules have been with us since childhood, a time when
adults played a huge role in helping us decide what rules to adopt.
We keep adding rules to live by throughout our lives, although the
pace slows down as time goes by. Most slowly fade into the background of
our subconscious the more we use them. They become a part of who we are
and how we interact with the world, and our unawareness of them is
usually a good thing.We have enough on our conscious minds already.
But these rules can affect us in ways we might not have thought of
when we incorporated them into our thought processes, and sometimes the
effects are not so good. It behooves us, when something in our lives is
not going well, to look at whether there’s something we’re doing to
contribute to the situation. Is there a rule that needs to be altered or
And here’s where we get to college admission, because one of the
rules millions of us have been adopting over the past few decades—often
without even being aware of it—is:
It’s critical for students to always do everything they can to
maximize their options of being admitted to the most selective college
For some, there’s a specific list of schools they’re aiming for. For
others, it’s just making sure they’ve done every little thing they can
to keep as many options as possible open. For all, it creates an anxious
feeling that you’ve never got enough time to do all that needs to be
done, because there’s no limit to how much can be done.
You can always study just a little bit longer for an exam, spend just
one more hour fine-tuning a paper, put in another half hour of training
for the big game or performance, etc. And this rule so many have
adopted encourages a mindset in which students never believe they’ve
The inevitable stress that’s a byproduct of this rule leads students
to sacrifice sleep, fun time with family and friends, peace of mind, and
all-too-often their health in pursuit of something that doesn’t matter
nearly as much as many believe it does. The anxiety this rule creates is
unnecessary, often counterproductive and potentially harmful to both
students and adults, and I’d like to see it eliminated so you and your
kids can focus your energies on more important matters, whatever they
may be. Working hard is important. So is knowing how to take care of
yourself by recognizing when you’ve done enough.
You’ve probably sensed that there’s a problem with this rule, but you
haven’t had the time to seek out evidence to support it beyond a few
anecdotes you’ve heard here and there about success stories of people
who didn’t follow it. But anecdotes aren’t enough, because there are
always going to be outliers. You want data before changing a rule that
you believe benefits your student’s future welfare.
I love data. I’ve gathered a lot of it over the past couple of years
and have created this website to share my findings with you in hopes
that it will encourage you to believe that it’s okay to relax a bit.
First, though, let’s take a quick look at how I define emotional
stress, and then at how quantifiably harmful chronic admission stress is
for students. I specify “emotional” stress, because with the college
admission process we’re not talking about physical danger,
fight-or-flight stress, although you might get the impression we are if
you look at recent headlines about how rapidly some have been willing to
abandon their integrity to gain an advantage.
Here’s my definition:
The tension between the reality currently in front of us and the
vision we have in our minds of how we’d like that reality to be.
And actually, I’d take this one step further and say that all of our
emotions are to at least some extent defined by the interaction between
reality and our wishes for how we’d like reality to be. Take some time
to consider that later.
But right now we’re going to focus on stress.
Just as we all have rules we’ve adopted to help us make decisions, we
are all constantly creating goals for how we’d like reality to be
different. So there’s always our current reality vs. the reality we’re
trying to create.
Some goals are very short-term and so easy to accomplish that most of us don’t even notice the stress associated with them.
I’m hungry and want something to eat. You may at first think that
being hungry is not a stressor, but you can see that it is if you look
at babies and others with physical limitations that make it difficult to
feed themselves. Or at those who live in places where food is scarce.
Or those who are severely overweight and trying to diet. Or those who
have a huge deadline looming and can’t afford to take time to seek out
sustenance. The reason most of us don’t notice any stress when we want
something to eat is that we’re so confident we can make it happen that
the small amount of stress associated with it doesn’t even register.
Other goals are more medium-term, like having a project to do for
work or school. Again, there’s a variability in how much stress we
notice depending on how confident we are that we can get the job done in
the time allowed.
And a few goals are long-term, such as finding a partner or owning a home. Or getting into college.
Each goal we add to the list adds anywhere from a tiny to an enormous
amount of stress to our lives, and we are constantly working to
eliminate stressors. Let’s look at our options for reducing stress
within this framework.
Change reality to achieve our goals.Cope through constructive methods: exercise, yoga, meditation, therapy, medication, etc.Cope through potentially destructive methods: comfort food, smoking, alcohol, drugs, thrill-seeking, self-harm, etc.Change or remove our goals.
By far the most common way we deal with stress is through working to
change reality. We take steps to complete a project at work or school.
We make a list of things that need to be done for an upcoming party
we’re hosting, then start getting them done. We start researching
appliances or cars in order to feel more confident about choosing a new
one to replace the one that just died. Or we simply make a sandwich for
Our lives are filled with new stressors all the time, and we act to
eliminate them by changing reality to match the pictures in our heads of
how we’d like reality to be. Just taking the first steps begins the
process of reducing stress, and it continues to diminish as our goal
This is good stress at work, with the desire to eliminate it
motivating us to get things done. Most of the stress we have in our
lives is good stress and is resolved pretty quickly, and we move on to
the next task.
But sometimes reality doesn’t cooperate with us, and our goals are
unattainable. Or we don’t see a path to attaining them yet. Or the path
is there, but it’s evident we’re going to have to deal with something
for a long time before reality changes.
We do have another option, though, when we’re not
able to change reality to match how we’d like it to be: We can change
our goals to be ones that we are more likely to be able to make happen.
This is an important strategy in many situations.
One way we can reduce stress in this type of situation is to not make
efforts to change anything, but rather to find means of coping with it.
This coping can be through positive means like exercise, yoga,
meditation, therapy, or medication, which all have the potential to
reduce the symptoms of an ongoing stress we’re not acting on. The source
of the stressor will still be there, though, so we’ll need to keep
coping until this source goes away on its own or until we act on it.
Coping is all-too-often done through potentially destructive means,
too, including over-consumption of comfort food, smoking, abuse of
alcohol and drugs, various forms of thrill-seeking, and sometimes even
self-harm. These coping methods may temporarily reduce stress, but they
will not eliminate the source, either, and often add new stressors
through negative effects on our health and our relationships with
We do have another option, though, when we’re not able to change
reality to match how we’d like it to be: We can change our goals to be
ones that we are more likely to be able to make happen. This is an
important strategy in many situations.
If the wedding you imagined for your child turns out to cost $75,000
instead of the $40,000 you have budgeted, you’re probably going to make
some changes to what you’re hoping for. If it becomes apparent that the
project you’re given at work is going to require 70 hours a week of work
in order to be completed on time, and you’re also planning the
aforementioned wedding at the same time, your picture of how it will get
done may need to evolve to include requesting the assistance of a
co-worker or spouse.
It’s not healthy to keep a major stressor in your
life for years that you know has only a 10 percent chance of being
resolved happily. Right?
And if we as a nation have millions of kids and parents obsessing
over a small group of colleges that collectively have under 40,000 spots
a year for new students, then we probably need to assess how to change
this goal to one that doesn’t leave 90 percent of those who have
admission to one of these schools in their heads unable to make it become
It’s not healthy to keep a major stressor in your life for years that
you know has only a 10 percent chance of being resolved happily. Right?
As you might imagine, researchers are starting to look in more detail
at the sources and effects of stress on high school students. In 2015,
an excellent study done by Noelle Leonard and others at New York
University’s School of Nursing was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
It looked at stress in students at two private high schools with high
achieving student populations. The graph on page 15 shows the main
sources of stress for those students.
Although many students also felt stress regarding other areas of
their lives, the sources of stress in the greatest number of students
were grades, homework, and getting into college—over 60 percent on all
three measures. Not too surprising.
What might surprise you, though, and what alarms me, is that this
study also found that the rate of symptoms of depression at a clinically
significant level in this population of high achievers was 26 percent,
and that the students who feel stressed about schoolwork, grades, and
college includes 49 percent (of all students) who reported feeling a
great deal of stress on a daily basis, with the rest feeling somewhat
stressed daily. That 49 percent is a huge percentage of highly at-risk
kids. And the 26 percent who are diagnosable as depressed is a
significantly higher percentage than that in the general population.
Of course, not all of those in that 26 percent have academic stress
as the primary source of their depression, but that makes heaping the
demands on them even worse, right? It exacerbates a problem that is
already causing major struggles.
There is ample research on the specific effects of chronic stress,
a.k.a. bad stress. I encourage you to seek out individual studies when
you have time, because it’s important for us to be aware of the
potential consequences for our kids if the demands on them lead to a
chronic state of stress. Let’s look briefly at a list of ways in which
researchers have found that stress can manifest itself in overburdened
How does chronic stress affect teens?
Early signs include a loss of focus and frequent headaches. For most
this is temporary or occasional, and is more of an annoyance than a
serious problem. For some, though, these problems can be ongoing and
Stress is also linked to anxiety and a weakened immune system,
gastrointestinal issues, anger issues, sleep disorders, and panic
attacks. These mid-level problems are not minor and can significantly
throw a person’s life off track if they persist.
The biggest dangers come with substance abuse, depression, eating
disorders, and self-harm. I don’t think we need to individually examine
these all-too-common issues. You know the risks all too well.
What we do need to be aware of is that these issues—which, again, are
likely present to some extent in every one of that 49 percent who say
they have high levels of daily anxiety—have often become chronic by the
time students graduate from high school, and they follow our kids to
college and into adulthood. Belief that they can never do enough to
ensure a happy and successful future for themselves can become habitual,
and can have the same negative effects on their lives for many years or
even decades. This is a major problem for each individual and for
society as a whole, and it’s a problem worthy of hard work to overcome.
And it becomes ironic for many, right? The constant push to achieve,
achieve, achieve has these side effects that often hinder their ability
to achieve. Even low levels of loss of focus and headaches make it more
difficult to get things done. Once the problems progress to sleep loss,
stomach pain and more frequent illnesses, one’s ability to do one’s best
can be seriously impaired. And, of course, the most dangerous issues
associated with chronic stress can spell an end to the hopes one had
that led to the stress in the first place.
This is important. Every one of us has limits beyond which our
efforts become counterproductive. Those limits are different for each of
us. And we should be asking ourselves—especially when dealing with kids
who are vulnerable and have little to no experience with knowing their
limits—how much is gained, if anything, by students relentlessly pushing
themselves to achieve at the highest levels possible in everything they
I don’t want to belabor something that’s hopefully already obvious to
most of you, but it’s very important to be aware of the potential
danger college admission stress brings and to ask ourselves whether it’s
worth risking these consequences for a very small chance at what I
believe does not offer as great a return as most believe.
Steve Becker is a former school counselor who lives in Washington, DC. He runs Less High School Stress, LLC, a free online resource for college admission counselors and their students.
This article, Part 1 of a 3-part essay, was borrowed from the Less High School Stress website with minor edits made for style.