Can College Admissions Do Anything to Help Prevent Teen Suicide? Cont'd

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

This college consultant in the Bay Area, Melissa Chen, is trying to help:

Rosin’s article quotes a recent op-ed from a Palo Alto High junior writing for Palo Alto Online:

We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick... Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?

[...] The narrow and insanely competitive path to college admissions, I believe, is all wrong. Firstly because there are easier routes to success. And secondly because I think taking the competitive road makes admissions to an elite college harder.

The most financially well-off peer that I know is Jeremy Lin, the basketball player and Linsanity-phenom, who lived in the same house that I did at Harvard. But the second wealthiest young person that I know is not a Harvard Business School banker or Stanford entrepreneur, but a San Jose State graduate who joined Facebook early enough to cash out during the IPO.

I know countless numbers of state-school and obscure-school graduates who had the foresight to study software engineering and are thus significantly out-earning many of my Harvard friends. While my Harvard network might pull ahead in time, it does seem perplexing for affluent parents and students to spend so much effort striving for the Ivy League when it seems so clear (especially in the Bay Area!) that other routes to success exist.

The other problem with this all-out sprint to the Ivy League is that it makes so many students look the same, which as any college admissions officer can tell you, is the death knell for an application.

Here’s some earlier advice from Atlantic readers who are also college consultants and educators in the Bay Area. This reader addresses one of them and echoes much of what Melissa Chen is saying:

I am respectfully responding to the individual with a grad degree from Harvard who taught high school in Palo Alto and is now a college counselor elsewhere. I don’t believe that the admission departments at elite colleges, especially those on the East Coast, practice a disingenuous game that automatically disqualifies outstanding students from, say, the Silicon Valley, and I don’t believe the idea that that high-performing students of immigrants are being routinely rejected based on a “coy game.”

The reality is—and one might consider it to be a staggering reality—is that academically hard-working and gifted students are a dime a dozen in today’s competitive world. To have a perfect GPA and perfect SAT and ACT scores coupled with greater than 5 AP courses and scores of 4 and 5 and not uncommon. Hours of weekly community service and/or school government roles are pursuits of the most ordinary of student seeking to attend a “good” college or university.

It is true that students and their parents are stressed beyond reasonable limits, but I would posit that something else, rather than a “coy game,” is at play in the admissions offices of elite colleges. So many of these young people are unable to convey who they are, and what they intend to bring to college, in a cohesive, well-defined essay.

I don’t think this exorbitant push for excellence is going to decline anytime in the near future, therefore it becomes incumbent upon parents, teachers, counselors, and friends to recognize the beginning signs of depression, those tell tale signs of hopelessness before we lose another precious life. Perhaps we could begin by not placing so much value on only gaining acceptance into elite institutions and programs?

Another reader adds a cautionary note along those lines:

I appreciate Hanna’s article on the Silicon Valley suicide problem. As someone who graduated from high school in the area (Lynbrook) in 2010, and who went to a top university, I can sympathize with a lot of students quoted in the story even if I was fortunate enough never to harbor those thoughts myself.

One issue I had with the article was the story about Taylor Chiu. It’s a moving anecdote, but I worry it will give high schoolers in the area ideas about how to cope with their schoolwork while still getting into Harvard. In particular, this sentence caught my eye: “She asked her teachers whether she could skip the work she’d missed while she was gone, and they all assured her that it wasn't important.”

I worry that some reading the article will see that sentence and get ideas about how they, too, can “get out” of doing their overwhelming schoolwork by also overdosing on pills. After all, Taylor did so and still ended up at Harvard, so how bad can it be?

Reading this story from the perspective of someone in the area, Taylor’s story isn’t so much a cautionary one as it is a success story. In a world where college admissions means so much, the fact that Taylor still got into Harvard will overshadow the battle over depression that she had to fight to get there.

Update from a reader:

Colleges can do quite a bit to prevent teen suicides, and quite easily, too. How? By having each university set a minimum standard for admission (let’s say a 3.50 GPA and 1800 SAT), and then use a lottery system to randomly select students from among all applicants who meet the qualifying standards.

There would be a lot less pressure on students to overachieve, since doing so would do nothing to improve their chances of admission. And since there are so many high-quality students these days, universities would probably end up with classes that are just as strong as those admitted under the current system.