An Apology to High School Sophomores


I wrote this several years ago, in response to an online discussion about whether or not sophomores were ready to think about college.  Someone just asked permission to use some of it in a book she’s writing, so I thought I would post it here, too.

An Open Letter to High School Sophomores (and probably freshmen, 8th
graders, and so on…) in the form of an extended generational apology:

First and foremost, we’re sorry.  We didn’t think your parents
were listening, or, perhaps more accurately, we thought they needed to
hear things over and over and over before they sunk in.  We
stretched the truth a bit to make a point.  And now we are
left with the unfortunate remnants of our good deeds.  Let me
explain.

You see, the generation you know as Baby Boomers lived in an exciting
time.  Before our fathers (and some of our mothers) came back
from World War II, college was little more than dream for most
Americans; just 50 years ago, only a quarter of high school graduates
attended college. Many who went eventually had their fill after two
years of college, and that was just fine for them, as just going to
college said something about you in those days.  For most, a
good job in the steel mill or the Ford factory, or one laying bricks
was sufficient to secure a good future.

But something—perhaps it was economic growth, or fascination with
abstract concepts like liberty or freedom or communism borne in the
War—caused that all to change.  Americans started to believe
that higher education was part and parcel of a better life.

It was easy to see how this belief evolved.  It’s natural for
parents to want better for their children, and after emerging from
years of sacrifice and fear, abundance and optimism reigned.
We were the victors, and to the victors belong the spoils. As our
parents looked around, one thing was unmistakable: The wealthy and
successful members of society were mostly college graduates; the middle
class and those at the bottom of the economic rungs were not.
If cause and effect may have been reversed in a classis case of post
hoc ergo propter hoc, who cared?   Aspire,
regardless.  Do as much as you can. Go to college.
Makes sense, doesn’t it?

College became a part of part of every parent’s dream for his or her
children.  (You might also type “Vietnam College Deferment”
into Google to get some insight into other reasons college became
popular in the 1960’s).  This enthusiasm was contagious, and
like a child returning from Trick-or-Treating, we gorged ourselves on
this newly found candy of opportunity.  Even the government
got involved, and created special grants and loans to make college
possible for those who couldn’t have imagined it. (I know it’s hard to
believe, but in 1964 if you wanted to go to college, you had to pay for
it all yourself.) The party had just begun, we thought, and showed no
signs of ending.  But the hangover was coming.

I was a part of this generation, celebrating the education
boom.  And as I started my work in college admissions 25 years
ago, my colleagues and I started beating some things into your parents’
heads.

Most notably, our talks with high school students included something to
the effect of, “Choosing a College will be one of the most important
choices you will ever make.”  Dramatic? Sure.  But in
our defense, you should have seen the things they were wearing back
then.  Who knew that bad taste in clothing didn’t
automatically suggest a certain dullness of wit or thickness of
skull?  We probably should have said, “Hey, you with the bell
bottoms, you have a few more choices than you might think.
Exercise them,” and been done with it.

The truth is that you do want to do a good job choosing a college
that’s right for your talent, ability, temperament, and world
view.   But looking back on my years of work in the
profession, I’ve learned that your choice of a specific college is far
less important than your investment in learning once you arrive
there.  I’ve come to believe that if most students spent as
much time in college taking advantage of the great minds they’re
surrounded with as they spent worrying about getting into the perfect
college and all the artificial steps they take to try to appear
academically and socially unblemished, your generation would be a lot
less stressed and a lot better educated.

You will make many, many decisions in your life that are far more
important than your choice of a specific college: Don’t get in a car
with a drunk driver; start saving for retirement early; don’t horse
around with guns.  I wish my nephew had gotten that last piece
of advice.

We were also fond of telling high school students that, “It is NEVER
too early to start preparing for college.”  What we really
meant, of course, was that March of the senior year was probably a bit
too late. Same thing, don’t you see?  OK…Subtle hyperbole
wasn’t our strong suit, obviously.  But our hearts were in the
right place.  To be sure, some of the sophomores you know may
be ready to think about—or even choose—a college very early in their
life.  When you get to be my age, I bet you’ll look back at
the people who seemed to have everything figured out so
early.  On average, one out of every ten will still have it
all together, and you’ll likely feel sorry for the other
nine.  Someone once wrote that you should be less concerned
with the pursuit of happiness than with the happiness of
pursuit.  Good advice.

By making something like college choice so important, we were trying to
encourage your parents to think big, and to take advantage of
opportunities that were profound beyond our inherited
mindset.  Mostly, we wanted them not to waste this new
opportunity, one we thought could change the world into the better
place we knew it could be.

If your uncles, aunts, parents, and older relatives had been true to
the spirit of the generation, or had just been typical teenagers, they
would have ignored all this “aphorism disguised as sage wisdom,” and
perhaps the world would now be a less stressful place for
you.  Alas, they not only heard it; they embraced
it.  They embraced is so hard they squeezed all the subtle
nuances out of it.  And worse yet, they magnified it and
passed it on to you, their children.  Who knew they’d be
so…so…so literal?

And ironically, the generation that benefited most from just “going to
college” started wondering, “What would happen if my kid—genetically
superior as she must be—got into the BEST college?”  Because
college is the most important decision she will ever make, and it’s
never too early to start planning, I must start grooming her NOW!!!

So, the people who’ve influenced you have been beating these things
into your head since you were old enough to be wrapped in that size 6
mo. “Future Harvard Alumnus” onesey.

Really, we had no idea it would take on these proportions.
And now, those of us who run college admissions offices are talking
about whether college recruitment should start earlier, perhaps in the
sophomore year of high school, if not even earlier.  Thus, we
are feeding on your obsession—the very one we started.  But
this time, the end game is clearer than it was so many years ago: The
paranoia about college will back up to somewhere pre-conception (if
it’s not there already in the form of pre-school waiting lists for
people yet-to-be-born, and Ivy League egg donors).  We
apologize for this too.  We are adults, and we should know
better.

Recently, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about kids in an exclusive
subdivision who played unorganized baseball, just for the fun of
it.  No uniforms, no parents, no umpires.  The very
fact that someone considered this news worthy was disheartening, but it
made me realize: As it was with my generation, so it is with
yours.  You can tell your parents—just like we did—that their
values are not yours.  You can choose to unilaterally
disarm.  You can take back your adolescence.  And a
good first step would be accepting our apology.  After that,
you have my permission to skip your choice of debate, violin, tennis,
Model UN, your medical shadowing, or your job in the nuclear physics
lab.  Just don’t skip your time at the soup kitchen,
though.  The importance of some things can’t be over stated.

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One thought on “An Apology to High School Sophomores

  1. […] I had previously written an apology about how well-meaning admissions officers of my era contributed to the collective angst of a generation by using and repeating the phrase “choosing a college is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make.”  It sounds nice, and may wake up a kid or two, but it’s really not true.  Certainly choosing a college will affect friends, relationships, jobs, and untold other things; but there is no way to tell which choice is the best, no way to tell how things might have been if you’d chosen otherwise, and no reason to agonize over it at age 17. […]

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