This week, I was on a webinar facilitated by Jeff Selingo, author and former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, a guidance counselor, an admissions officer, and a Collegeboard representative volleyed questions and attempted to get at elusive answers in this historical, touch-and-go moment. The messages were ones of compassion, of grace, of not driving our teens even further into a spiral of stress as we all wait for the other shoe to drop and ask, “Will I become ill?” “Will I be in a hospital alone?” “Unable to breathe?” This is certainly a crucible moment. And it deserves a somber tenor. 

Yet, there is a ten-thousand-pound elephant in the room.

And perhaps that makes me the child exclaiming that the emperor has no clothes on.

Why has it taken a pandemic of biblical proportions for us to turn our empathetic gaze toward our college-bound teens? 

Allow me to further illustrate. There is a funeral home on Broad Street in Red Bank, New Jersey and during my commute to my educational consulting offices, as I drive by, I see people rocking in the rocking chairs on the front porch. I drive past miles and miles of picket fenced-in yards with front porches lined with rocking chairs and never, ever have I seen one soul rocking on them. 

Why does it take a tragedy to course-correct us: to force us to stop, take the time, disembark the gerbil wheel and take rest and stock?

Now that we are in a holding pattern of epic proportions, we are being forced to address the impact that this prolonged performance mentality has had on our young people.

Rev. Dr. Letty Russell, a Yale Divinity School professor of mine, often invoked the “Action Reflection Model” also known as the Action Reflection Spiral. If we are incessantly acting, we do not learn from our actions and how they are impacting us, either positively, negatively or neutrally. The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted The Great Pause. I adjure us all to reflect. 

Let us reflect on how the zero-sum, current college admission paradigm has strip-mined teens of their creativity, making them risk-averse, perfectionistic and frankly, college application robots; how millions of dollars and hours devoted to test prep has done nothing to better collective humanity. Nothing. 

If I could be the interlocutor to every college junior learning at home currently, I would urge them to begin to read a Great Book. I would tell them to pick up a handicraft. I would invite them to create a gratitude or spiritual journal and dedicate time to silence each and every day. I would grant them permission to pursue something that sparks joy that is not a line-filler for the activities section of the Commonapp. 

It takes effort to unwind the “human doing” and return to a state of “human being”. Perhaps the damage is done, like my wool sweater that my teenaged son put in the drier this week in an effort to “help.” But if I could simply validate that teens are infinitely valuable simply because they exist, and not because of what they can or can’t do, or how they are perceived from the outside, and regardless of what colleges’ institutional priorities they fulfill. 

“Knowing thyself is the beginning of all wisdom,” Aristotle once said. In this “found” time, I grant you permission to ask yourself, “What constitutes a good life?” I think the Emerson poem comes closest to my own definition of success: “…To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition.” So I adjure you, Generation Z, to ask yourselves, who are you and do you like your own company when you are alone? My inkling is that we are all finding out just that. 

Dr. Erin Avery is the author of The College Labyrinth: A Mindful Admissions Approach available at:

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