I fall asleep most every night reading articles about admissions trends, cognitive psychology, goal-setting… I eat this stuff up.

But I also read things that make my stomach turn. Some of these nausea-inducing pieces come from others in the business of college admission counseling, and some of it comes from well-meaning parents who have heard bad information from other parents—things like their child needs to be “branding” themselves in order to look good to colleges, or test-prep ought to start in ninth grade, or the higher “ranked” a college is the better it must be. It makes me want to scream, “Stop the madness!”

College admission planning is stressful for students and parents. This is the most scrutiny (whether real or perceived) many students will have undergone thus far in their lives. There’s adolescent (and sometimes parental) ego at stake, hinged on the idea of getting in or being denied. It’s also an incredibly expensive proposition, one where understanding actual costs is nearly impossible up front. There are acronyms to decipher (SAT, ACT, AP, FAFSA, CLEP, IB), classes to choose, leadership skills to cultivate, tests to prep for, colleges to research… If all that worry is left unbridled, it can lead to poor decisions that adversely affect the student. Decisions like turning your child into a “brand” or spending thousands prepping for a PSAT test in tenth grade that doesn’t even count for national merit (and national merit doesn’t necessarily live up to it’s reputation for being a golden goose, anyway!).

Stop the madness! There is such thing as too much test prep (or starting test prep too early), your high-schooler does not need a “brand”, and the Ivies are not the only colleges worthy of effusive fanfare.

I believe in purposeful planning, using accurate information. This has the effect of bringing the stress inherent in this process down a level. My students have plans for when they will start test prep and they understand why they are taking the tests at the times allocated. These are things any student can create for himself or herself. I also believe we best serve students when we help them find authenticity as opposed to a synthetic identity manufactured to get them in to college, as if getting in were the end goal (it’s not). Teenagers are in the midst of discovering themselves. Let’s not stifle that process by inserting an idea of what “looks good” to an admissions committee into the mix.

Instead, let’s help them understand the pursuit of knowledge is more valuable than a weighted GPA or class rank. Let’s protect them from unnecessary and premature stress by allowing test prep to start when it’s an appropriate time. Let’s do the best by our kids by teaching them to be themselves, giving them tools to discover what that means, and challenging them to do so with intrinsic motivation.

For my students and me that means engaging in goal-setting and aligning select activities with those goals. It means looking at a broad range of colleges, including some you might not have heard about before (You’re interested in research and you want a scholarship? Skip Cornell and try Rhodes). It means fostering authentic interests and pursuing them relentlessly. (If you are a student of mine, you have probably heard me tell you to pursue two or three activities 100 miles per hour with your hair on fire).

I am passionate about what I do because I believe so strongly in the power of higher education. It’s the opportunity to unlock not only doors to a future career, but doors to a more liberated mind and better life. But students have to be taught to value it as such, and when we teach them to brand themselves, pursue a grade instead of an understanding of a subject, or place their self worth in the prestige of their admissions decisions, we are teaching the wrong values.