Overemphasizing academic achievement has deprived students of true growth

  As colleges rush to offer a spot on their campuses to the talented concertmaster of a youth orchestra, the Science Olympiad captain with a perfect grade point average (GPA) and the star athlete, do these shiny achievements truly indicate readiness for post-high school life?

  In most college admissions success stories, national gold medals and prestigious recognitions have become the bare minimum. But while these achievements award hardworking high school students with a ticket to their dream college, statistics find that 24.1 percent of seemingly college-ready students drop out within the first 12 months of their college careers—and this number is on the rise. Facing such a staggering dropout crisis, it is clear that admission offices’ overemphasis on achievements has only produced admissions-ready achievement machines, not students ready for college.

  Even middle schoolers are a reflection of this new ideal, with many being sent to college-prep academies where they are stuffed with knowledge beyond their age. Like this, young people are effectively being molded into machines for college admissions rather than real college readiness. And it is important to recognize the difference between machines and students: machines are heartless instruments that work to achieve external needs; students are curious scholars that work to achieve internal learning needs. 

  With a defined difference established, more concerning achievement-chasing symptoms reveal themselves. Most prominent among them is “spike-building,” or demonstrating academic interest through deep involvement and achievements in a field, allowing students to focus on and master their passion. However, the heightening emphasis on the value of college admissions attached to spike-building has driven the train off the rails, leaving train wrecks in academic programs across high schools.

  Furthermore, spike-building sparked the popularity of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and a rigid test-prep teaching style. Guided by a strict timeline to cram in materials for the AP exam in May, Glen A. Wilson High School (GAWHS) AP Psychology teacher Corbin Blanchard finds himself unable to tailor his class to student interests and needs.

  “[The rigid schedule] does not allow for any breaks in delivery of the content nor does it allow me to linger on a specific topic that students are interested in,” Blanchard said. “The amount I spend on each unit is dependent on what percentage of that unit is covered in the AP exam.”

  The founding idea of AP courses and exams is to encourage students to explore subjects of interest at a college level. But when admissions officers scrutinize the final exam score students achieved on their AP exam, teachers are forced to rush through test-essential concepts at the surface level and students have lost the in-depth learning that was promised by the AP program.

  And not only has this exam-centered dynamic deprived students of in-depth collegiate learning, but it has also halted students’ true growth through exploration beyond their comfort zone. This results in college-driven teenagers being afraid to venture outside of familiar subjects, wasting their high school years seeking achievements that appeal to college admissions rather than their own interests. Instead of developing skills essential to post-high school life through diverse experiences, students are becoming machines.

  Communication is one of these skills that students fail to develop while caught up in achievement-chasing. As an alumni and current admissions reader at UCLA, GAWHS chemistry teacher Ernesto Leon shares his perspective on the phenomenon.

  “Being able to communicate in different forms with different people is important for college and life after school,” Leon explained. “This skill is developed by interacting outside of your comfort zone—and being afraid to explore definitely hinders students’ growth [as better communicators].”

  In addition to impeding students’ growth in practical skills,  International Baccalaureate (IB) program coordinator Christina Rouw sees the bigger picture: luring students with achievements when it comes to building spikes limits them from experimenting with unfamiliar activities to learn about their true passions.

  “While [spike-building] rewards students who have a clear passion from early on, the students who do not have a definite passion yet are almost being forced to declare a major in the sophomore year of high school,” Rouw pointed out. “This is also why the IB program requires [diploma-seeking] students to complete courses in all 6 areas, [ranging from sciences to fine arts]—we want our students to learn about themselves by taking classes they are less comfortable with.”

  Nevertheless, poisonous apples come from poisonous trees—the achievement-obsession fruit did not come from nowhere. When colleges are ranked like Wall Street finance firms, higher education turns into a capitalized race for top rankings. As these rankings are calculated by statistics such as dropout rates, colleges carefully judge spikes and achievements to handpick students who appear to be “college and career ready” and less likely to add to their dropout numbers. Ironically, this race to the top has resulted in unready college students who never got to grow past “earn achievements to impress college admissions,” ready to add to the exploding dropout numbers.

  So colleges: if life after high school is far more than elaborate awards and perfect transcripts, then why evaluate one’s readiness for college based on these factors? Give the history geeks who had a C in AP Physics a chance and you will find yourself a curious and resilient student who is ready for collegiate rigor.

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