Today’s high school students feel tremendous pressure to be admitted to a “good” college. They start grooming their transcripts in middle school, pursuing activities and classes that they hope will impress admissions officers at highly selective colleges. But the constant struggle to achieve is taking its toll on our children. 

The award-winning documentary “Race to Nowhere” illustrates the consequences of the desperate pursuit to be admitted to a top college: “… cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.”

Alice Kleeman is the College Advisor at Menlo-Atherton High School, a large public school in the San Francisco Bay Area. The first thing you see when you walk into her office is a sign that says, “Stress Is Optional!” It’s the perfect expression of her belief that “right-fit” colleges are waiting with open arms for any student who has spent his high school years developing his own interests instead of following a prescribed path. 

“A right-fit college is a place where you can be happy and comfy for four years,” Kleeman explains to her students. “It is easy to get swept up in selecting colleges based on prestige, name recognition, hearsay and stereotypes, peer and parent pressure—but the decision about where to go after high school is too important to be made in this way. College is an exciting step toward greater independence and a satisfying life—one that only you will be living.”

Still, it’s hard for us to let go of the idea that a degree from a highly selective college is the best predictor of future success. But what does “highly selective” mean? If we consider any college that admits one third or fewer of its applicants, there are about 50-60 U.S. colleges that fall in this category. But, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. has over 2,500 4-year colleges. This means that our children are knocking themselves out to compete for admission into 2% of the colleges available to them. Is admission to these colleges really worth the stress it takes to get in?

In 1999, economists Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger published a study called "Estimating the Payoff of Attending a More Selective College." Their findings went against conventional logic: “Going to an academically elite college does not necessarily boost your earnings potential compared to a less elite college.” In fact, ambition turned out to be more important than acceptances: “It appears that student ambition, as reflected in the quality of the school to which he or she applies, is a better predictor of earning success than what college they ultimately choose or which college chooses them." 

The researchers cited the experience of Steven Spielberg, who was rejected by both USC and UCLA film schools, but achieved wild success after attending a less prestigious program. In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported that most CEO’s went to state universities or lesser-known private colleges, and that “leadership, talent, and ambition have more to do with getting to the top than a degree from a prestigious college.”

Therefore, our students need to spend less time figuring out what pleases a college and more time figuring out what pleases themselves. By pursuing their strengths, they will have the chance to develop the leadership and ambition that will shape their future. 

According to Kleeman, “A high quality high-school experience comes when you challenge yourself in areas in which you have interest and strength. Get involved with what you love. Make choices based on what inspires you. Make sure that what you’ve done is what you want to do.” When you package yourself as something you’re not just to impress a certain college, chances are good you won’t be happy at that college. It’s far better to be yourself and find a college that will appreciate and foster your unique talents.

There are many private, liberal-arts colleges that offer an outstanding education, and college counselors can help students hone in on the ones that fit their interests. But if cost is an issue, there are many excellent, lesser-known public universities that should be investigated. 

In California, for instance, many students focus on UC Berkeley or UCLA even though their admissions are extremely competitive. But the UC system guarantees a spot for everyone who’s eligible. UC Merced and UC Riverside are excellent options, and aren’t pressure-cookers like their big-city cousins where classes are so hard to get that many students need five years to graduate.

So as your child considers where to attend college, it’s important to remember that selectivity and quality are not always synonymous. Consider factors beyond name recognition when looking at colleges, such as student-to-faculty ratios, retention rates, and enrichment experiences. Smaller colleges often offer more individual attention, unique opportunities, and chances to shine. They can be less nerve-wracking and might offer a pleasanter quality of life. Spend some time investigating some of these less-familiar colleges and you’ll find for yourself that stress is, indeed, optional.