Portrait of desperate and stressed young man pulling his hair. Studio shot, grey background.
Portrait of desperate and stressed young man pulling his hair. Studio shot, grey background.
Jackie Headapohl Managing Editor

Getting into their college of choice can leave students stressed.

Shining the Light, Spotlight on Teen Mental Health. Mental health, mental illness. mental health awareness.Hey, juniors and seniors, here’s some news to use: Where you go to college is of almost no importance to your future employment options. Whether your degree is from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State or Grand Valley matters far less than your academic performance and the skills you can show employers once you graduate.

In the book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, author Frank Bruni cites a 2014 Gallup poll that asked business leaders the importance of four different factors when making hiring decisions. Nearly 85 percent of those surveyed said field-relevant knowledge was “very important” to their hiring decisions. Only 9 percent said where an applicant had gone to college was very important to their decision.

And the longer you’re out of college, the less relevant college is to an employer. By the time you’re 35 or 40, it doesn’t matter at all. What does? “Demonstrated success and a proven track record.”

Furthermore, according to Bruni’s book, a 2011 study by economists comparing grads of “elite” colleges with “not-so-elite” colleges showed lifetime earnings between the two differed very little or not at all.

Despite these facts, many students believe if they don’t get into the college they want, their futures will be less bright. This puts them under a lot of pressure.

During the school year, teenagers report higher levels of stress than grownups, according to the American Psychological Association. School, homework, extracurricular activities and perhaps a part-time job leave 27 percent of teens saying they experience “extreme stress” during the school year, 40 percent of teens feeling irritable or angry, and 36 percent feeling nervous or anxious. A third say stress makes them feel overwhelmed, depressed or sad.

Some research has shown that rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse are higher among affluent teens than any other group of young people, and achievement pressure is a significant contributor.

Marla Lewis
Marla Lewis

“Teens are under much more pressure than 20 years ago,” says Marla Lewis, clinical director at Bloomfield DBT. “It can result in a lot of anxiety and depression — and depending on how teens cope — self-harming behaviors, drug abuse and isolation. Stress leads teens down a more dangerous path.”

Lewis says parents can best help their teens by listening to their feelings without problem-solving for them. “Teens are trying for autonomy,” she says. “Validate your kids and let them make mistakes and learn from them.

“Kids wish their parents trusted them more to solve their own problems and wouldn’t judge them on the decisions they make.”

Perhaps a teen doesn’t want to take that extra AP class because she wants to balance time with friends and extra-curricular activities.

“There are plenty of people who go to med school and never took an AP class,” Lewis says. “Trust that if your children work hard, they will be able to achieve their goals.”


Acceptance rates at elite colleges have plummeted in recent years, edging out even the most impressive students. Less than 5 percent of applicants were accepted at Stanford University this year, for example. At the University of Michigan, acceptance rates fell from 56 percent in 1984 to 32 percent in 2014.

The reason is math.

While the number of students applying to college is growing, the number of students a school is accepting is not growing at the same pace. This is causing the competition to increase so much that a student who would have been accepted 10 years ago will likely get a rejection letter today.

Also, technology has made it easier to apply to many schools. Using a streamlined admissions app, students can apply to 20 schools — something unheard of 10 or 20 years ago. As more students apply, admission rates go down.


Paul Siegel Nadiv
Paul Siegel Nadiv

Paul Siegel Nadiv, 16, of Huntington Woods, says he’s feeling a lot more stressed about college. “Stressed enough to drop some activities like theater to get better grades.”

The Frankel Jewish Academy student who is active in BBYO says he gets mostly B’s and would like to attend either Michigan State University or Wayne State University to study business or political science. “I want to stay close to home, and most of my friends are going to MSU.”

He says he does feel the pressure to excel. “My brothers are at Yale and Columbia,” he said. “But I feel my parents are behind me.”

Pelli Mechnokov
Pelli Mechnokov

Pelli Mechnokov, 16, of Huntington Woods attends FJA as well. She hasn’t chosen a college yet but wants to stay in Michigan. She maintains a 3.96 GPA and has enrolled in AP courses. She’s involved in school musicals, volunteers at Prentis Apartments in Oak Park and belongs to Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield. She’s not sure what she wants to study in college just yet.

“I feel the anxiety and pressure, but it mainly comes from myself and my desire to excel,” she said. “My parents don’t pressure me; they only want me to do my best.”

Bennett Grosinger
Bennett Grosinger

Fellow FJA student Bennett Grosinger, 17, of Franklin also plans to go to MSU. “U-M is hard to get into and I don’t know if I can get in,” said the 3.5 GPA student. “MSU is a great school with a better, less competitive student life.”

Grosinger, who’s active in BBYO, is a FJA Quiz Bowl co-captain, Argument Club president and founder and is running for student body president, plans to study agricultural economics.

“Parents understand the stress regarding grades and performance,” he said, “but they don’t understand the social stress of being a teen. There’s a level of anxiety that everyone is suffering from and stress, depression — it’s one or the other at any given time.”

He said he makes time to relax. “Sunday is homework day. On Friday and Saturday nights, I’m free, not studying. That’s when I don’t feel the stress of high school.”

“What you really want kids to be thinking about is not what’s the best college, but what’s the best college for them.”
— Kim Lifton


Gallup recently asked teens ages 13 to 17 about the amount of pressure, if any, they felt from their parents to get into a good college. Nearly two-thirds of all American teens say their parents put “a great deal” (22 percent) or “some” (41 percent) pressure on them.

That number might be even higher in the Jewish community where there’s an unspoken expectation of educational and financial success in life, leaving some teens to feel — rationally or not — that they have to excel or disappoint their parents.

This is especially true when it comes to applying to college.

Kim Lifton
Kim Lifton

“The conversation about the application process really shouldn’t even begin until 11th grade,” said Kim Lifton, owner of Wow Writing Workshop, which works with students on their college essays. She’s helped more than 200 students in the last 10 years. She says the students she works with in the Bloomfield area have their sights set on getting into the University of Michigan.

“What you really want kids to be thinking about is not what’s the best college, but what’s the best college for them,” Lifton said. “There are many hundreds of good colleges out there, and any one of them might be the right one for your child.”

Lifton says she spends a lot of her time calming down parents more so than students. “They believe kids have to take five AP classes and have these remarkable experiences — like teaching kids to read in the Dominican Republic — to get into college, but that’s not the case,” Lifton said. “We tell them grades are the most important things and the rigor of curriculum.”

And those college essays? “We tell parents if your kid wants to write about something in their grandma’s backyard, let them. It doesn’t matter,” Lifton said. “College admission officers want to know how kids think and if they can write well enough to survive. It doesn’t have to be publishable. It should read like a 17-year-old kid did it.”

Parents may pressure their kids to apply to a specific school — perhaps their alma mater. But even if their children have the grades, the extra-curriculars, etc., “being qualified doesn’t guarantee anything,” Lifton said. “Students should apply to a school where they know they’re wanted.”

Lifton counsels students not to be so quick to rule out the rest of Michigan’s public universities. “Go to visit and leave your parent in the car,” she said. “Don’t let anybody else tell you where you belong.”

Pressure doesn’t always come from parents, of course. We’re in a culture that almost demands achievement — and that message starts early.

Robyn Weiss
Robyn Weiss

According to Robyn Weiss of West Bloomfield, a counselor at Berkley High School, the message that kids must strive to achieve begins as early as elementary school.

“There’s this idea that kids need to be perfect — get good grades, look good, be on social media, get high test scores, make their parents and grandparents proud — it’s a lot of pressure,” Weiss says. “As a department at our high school, we’re trying to change that message and make it more balanced. As for college, we tell students, ‘Where you are is not who you’ll be.’”

Weiss says she works with students to help them better understand who they are and what they want to study. “Maybe someplace other than U-M would better fit their needs.”

Larry Bacow
Larry Bacow

Larry Bacow, a native Detroiter who recently took the reins as president of Harvard, says kids are under too much pressure to get into an elite college.

“You can get a good education almost anywhere as long as you make the big decisions right,” he said. “Kids can find their niche within any school because there are great teachers everywhere.”

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