Can College Admissions Do Anything to Help Prevent Teen Suicide?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yes, according to a reader and educator who went to Harvard graduate school:

There’s obviously much wrong with how Americans educate their children. But when Hanna Rosin asks, “Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?”—as a former teacher there who’s now a college counselor elsewhere—I’d identify the chief culprit: the refusal of elite universities to make their actual admissions priorities and practices transparent.

The desperate frenzy to rack up AP credits, perfect grades, awards, volunteer experiences, and recommendations—calling to mind a hamster madly spinning on a wheel—has a very simple antecedent, which is that colleges such as Yale, Duke, and Stanford play a coy game to entice applicants who have virtually no chance of acceptance, urging them to believe that running ever harder, “accomplishing” more and more, might help. Is it any wonder that some kids opt off the wheel?  

This futile, soul-crushing chase has especially severe consequences in places like Palo Alto, which unlike old-money enclaves in other parts of the country, have large numbers of educated immigrants from places whose school systems are based upon fixed criteria and meritocratic ranking, who are relatively unsophisticated about how the system in America—skewed to favor insiders—works.  

What can those most responsible for this madness do to rectify the problem?

The most obvious first step would be to declare—much like the warning on a mutual fund—”our policy is to admit a talented and diverse group of students who serve our institutional goals. Being unusually accomplished as a student in no way guarantees admission.” More important, they could establish firm and reduced caps on how many total courses, advanced courses, awards and honors, and extracurricular activities students could declare—say, 22, 5, 3, and 3, respectively. While this would indeed make the job of distinguishing among elite students somewhat harder, it would make life dramatically easier—and more predictable—for countless others.  

Another reader also takes aim at college admissions:

I teach at a high school down the road from Paly and Gunn.  The only reason we aren’t part of the tragedy is sheer dumb luck, as too many of our students have attempted to take their lives only to be hospitalized in time.

I want to call out the elite universities like Stanford that like to crow about how competitive they are in admissions. I want the admissions directors of Stanford and UCs and Harvard to come tell my kids why their school is so great that they should be killing themselves to gain admission. Do you really think you are $30,000 better than our California State schools? Do you really think you are so great that the return on investment garnered from a Stanford warrants this level of competition and stress for 16 year old kids?

There is a lot of structural reform that is needed, and it won’t solve the problems of mental illness that too many of our kids deal with in silence and shame, but it may give space for those problems to be addressed. Among other things, I would like to see the college admissions process shifted out of high school entirely to the summer and fall after graduation. Let kids enjoy school. There is no reason any one has to go to college three months after they graduate from high school. Let them think through where they want their life to be after they have finished high school and have a moment to breathe.

Our kids deserve far better from all of us.

Do you work in college admissions at a top-tier school and want to push back against this criticism or comment in general? Drop me an email.