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Dreams of a branded education

Is the admission process healthy if it leads to stress and affects your prospects psychologically?

Dreams of a branded education

Competition is natural. Whether Tom chases Jerry or Barcelona plays Real Madrid, dominating an opponent releases dopamine. As you excel, the dopamine receptors in the brain increase, enlarging the appetite for the number of wins. Such hunger and want drive one to extremes and may even lead to the top.

It’s an amusing sight when all the combative students gather in the examination hall amongst the stomach churns and checks for lucky coins. You can almost hear Effie Trinket say, “May the odds be ever in your favour.” This quote was used in the dystopian novel, The Hunger Games, where randomly selected children were forced into a stadium for a fight to death.

Of course, the current college admission process isn’t as brutal as that, but the similarity of the situation does send chills down the spine. Competition was invented as a selection technique to single out the propitious, by bringing out the best qualities in everyone.

Social media adds on to this brewing pot and takes competition and comparison to a whole new level. Lives are judged by the number of likes and comments. Ironically, competition tends to bring out the worst in some people. Kids hide the fact that they are taking tuitions and insensibly flaunt online to prove their worth to their peers. Competition drives away cooperation; latter being the key to national and global success.

My school showed its students a TED Talk given by Kelly McGonigal about stress. She talks about how stress only has negative consequences because one thinks it has negative consequences. “The best way to fight stress is to not fight it,” states Ismael Abdullah, an Aitchisonian now headed for the University of Pennsylvania. This type of thinking is surely optimistic, but then why are some students still seen with their brows furrowed, stressing over whether they have what it takes? Such students exist because the youth hasn’t been trained to think positively. The clever ones adapt their thoughts to this fast-paced life and end up victorious. The rest, however, get buried underneath the increasing pile of work along with their dreams of a branded education.

Orna Khan, a student residing in New York who is about to attend Hunter College, confesses, “You’d think why can’t I be like that or why am I struggling with all of this so much while others look fine”.

Local medical and professional colleges have extreme standards. Dr. Farhan Khan, a professional life consultant and psychologist in Lahore, shared that 80 per cent of his young adult and teenager patients come to him with issues regarding studying and have anxiety due to their education.

With college essays, school work, sports, academies, languages, SAT/ACT, subject tests, students these days don’t have the time to explore a new interest or do something unscheduled.

How can students be expected to handle stress after watching one TED Talk? In their adolescence, they go straight for immediate gratification. Binge watching Netflix and laughing at existential memes has become quite a trend among teens to de-stress. If these cathartic techniques don’t do the job, then drugs and alcohol are a well-known form of escapism.

For some students without family support or with little means, there is no one to answer questions to pacify the ride of the application process. Most school counsellors are overworked and can’t provide individual attention to all their students. Affluent students have the benefit of hiring personal counsellors and tutors so they have an early start, sailing smoothly and stress-free.

Orna explains, “I had to research a lot on my own to see what colleges I should apply to. I had to prepare a lot on my own for the SAT. In most cases, people had prep classes but that wasn’t much of an option for me because the classes are expensive.” This cut-throat and help-yourself atmosphere leaves some intelligent students in the dust. Sadly, a big portion of youth in various parts of the world doesn’t even get a chance to apply to such schools. They are affected by extreme poverty, international and national armed conflicts, natural and social disasters, and disabilities.

With college essays, school work, sports, academies, languages, SAT/ACT, subject tests, students these days don’t have the time to explore a new interest or do something unscheduled.

Rejection is another painful bump in the admission rollercoaster. Just as winning releases dopamine, losing lowers the testosterone levels boosted during a competition. This discourages their subconscious to try again as they remember their old loss, resulting in meek thoughts.

Avni Kataria, a graduate of The British School now heading to University of Pennsylvania, shares her emotions, “I got rejected from Oxford and it killed me initially. I felt like I’d given the whole application process my best shot and done something terribly wrong. I was convinced that the rejection was a reflection of my self worth but honestly looking back it’s one of the best things that could have happened to me. Oxford did me a favour by not taking me even though it felt horrible at the time because Penn is perfect for me.”

Rejection does tend to trip and deter many, leading the youth to question their abilities. Is the admission process healthy if it leads you to criticise yourself so strongly that it affects your prospects psychologically?

As the tuition fees go up, so do the demands asked of the children. With college essays, school work, sports, academies, languages, SAT/ACT, subject tests, and community service, students these days don’t have the time to explore a new interest or do something unscheduled. Sleep is also being affected due to the tight schedule during high school years.

Arbaz Omar, who is headed for Columbia after his days in Aitchison College Lahore, says, “I can fully function with a good 5-6 hour sleep. I also drink a lot of tea, 4-5 cups a day.” The good old days of going out on a limb and discovering a hidden treasure in idleness are over. Many families, like that of Ismael’s, dream of sending their children to the Ivy League and start training them from the tender age of five. Ismael admits that his parents even forced him to do certain things at times but now he is grateful for it. Even though it worked out well in Ismael’s case, is setting goals at such a young age wholesome? Avni reminds us, “The college you go to, contrary to popular belief, is not the end of the world. You have grad school and every college is what you make of it so wherever you go, you’ll be just fine”.

Educational institutions promote their brands to increase their number of applicants. They only accept the number of students they need and reject the rest, consequently lowering their acceptance rate and ameliorating their prestige. Tutoring centres and companies providing counselling are emerging in every country, ready to milk more money from innocent parents. Such college culture is slowly turning into a market that propagates more competition.

However, I will credit some sought-after colleges for encouraging students to go all out and test their own potential at the peak of their youth. At the end of the day, there is comfort in knowing that all students are evaluated using the same exact procedure without any prejudice.

Sarah Hameed

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The writer resides in India. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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