IOWA CITY — Throughout her career as a counselor, Iowa City West’s Kelly Bergmann has noticed a growing trend of perfectionism among high-achieving students toward college applications, and the consequences and myths that come along with it.
“A lot of our kids are going for Ivy League schools,” Bergmann said. “That’s (the) kind of the culture we live in.
“A lot of the time, it’s the luck of the draw. Everyone has a bunch of fives on their (AP) exams, perfect scores on (SAT) subject tests; everyone has everything perfect. When it comes down to it, you can be perfect and still not get in.”
The idea of perfectionism has led students to think in a closed mind-set, where they believe a successful future lies only in going to their dream school. This mind-set, along with the fear of failure, leads to students striving toward perfection in a variety of ways, such as spending hundreds of hours pouring over test-prep books, pushing parents to shell out hundreds of dollars on expensive programs and coordinating every action to what they believe an admissions officer would find appealing.
“I think now we’re living in this age where everyone wants to have a tutor, and they feel like if they don’t score anywhere from a 30 to 34, somehow, they’re a bad test-taker and they’re never going to get into college,” Bergmann said.
This mind-set can lead to other harmful effects, such as excessive competition and stress.
“(West) has an extremely competitive academic environment. A kid can have a 3.9 (GPA) and be ranked 200th in their class,” Bergmann said. “That’s low, and that’s crazy because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a 3.9. It makes you human.
“I believe a little bit of competition is good, but when the norm is perfection, that’s where things get to be a little much.”
This can make what is mostly an independent process encompass the results of others, creating an environment of comparison and tension.
“It’s very nitty-gritty. (Counselors) hear gossip a lot,” Bergmann said.
However, during the application process seniors are usually full of stress, balancing their busy school coursework with auditions, essays, testing and extracurricular activities. At times, students may be overwhelmed and don’t know how to deal with the pressure.
“I think (stress) is generally healthy,” Bergmann said. “When you’re stressing yourself out so much that it starts to hinder your quality of life, that’s when it starts to become bad. Should you be a little stressed and anxious? Yes. But can you breathe? Can you focus? Are you having a good quality of life? That’s where the barrier is.”
Bergmann realizes, as a part of perfectionism in the college process, the numbers in the applications are extremely important. However, she recommends showing colleges the more human side of a person instead, observing if everyone is trying to become perfect and doing the same activities, everyone blends into the masses and no one truly stands out.
“A lot of the high school experience is pushing yourself academically and (finding) what also makes you you,” Bergmann said. “Everyone else is perfect, so stop trying to be perfect and be a good person, and show that you have something to give the school because of who you are, not what your grades or test scores are.”
One of the most important parts in showing the more human aspect is through recommendation letters. Bergmann emphasizes relationships — when teachers and counselors write letters, the best letters they write are for students they genuinely know as a person through conversations, showing their interests and their personality rather than their grades.
“Just be a good person and we’ll notice that,” Bergmann said. “We can tell a difference between the kids that ... have this human aspect to them versus the kids that are 4.0 perfect for this, tutor for that. We see those things. That’s what you apart from everyone else.”
The combination of perfectionism, competition and stress comes into play mostly during decision day, which can make or break a student’s aspirations.
“If some kids don’t get into the school they’ve been dreaming of forever, that’s a huge shot to what they feel like they’re going to be able to achieve going forward,” Bergmann said. “It’s going to be really hard and they’re going to struggle for a long time. People that you feel like you need to deliver the news to are going to love you no matter what.”
In the end, no matter the result, a successful future still lies within sight.
“There’s a plan out there for you and it doesn’t depend on the school you’re going to. A lot of the times it has nothing to do with who you are or what you’re capable of doing,” Bergmann said. “Talk to the people that you really love and know you well. Focus on the other things going good for you. It’s a school’s loss and another school’s gain.”
Just last year, more than 38,000 hopefuls from around the world applied to Stanford University, marking the record for the largest application pool in Stanford history.
Only about 2,000 were offered the coveted acceptance letter. It’s no surprise Stanford’s acceptance rate is the lowest of all colleges in the U.S. at 4.8 percent.
That’s enough to scare even the most qualified applicants.
However, this prospect didn’t prevent senior Lauren Ernst from applying early to her dream school. In hopes of making the cut, Ernst started preparing freshman year.
“I took the hardest classes available.” she said. “Whenever there was an AP class, I took it. I think I took the courses that I enjoyed and at the same time were most challenging to me.”
Ernst has committed herself to five AP classes this year, making it difficult at times to focus on applications. Additionally, the competitive and stressful environment among seniors during college applications can make it just as hard to focus. Ernst has experienced this firsthand on a day-to-day basis.
“I’ve talked to a couple of people and they’re like, ‘Well, if I don’t get in and this person does, I’m going to be kind of upset because I feel like we have very similar applications,’” Ernst said.
With tension among students, the demanding pressures of perfection and comparison can lead to secrecy, as acceptance letters can become the definition of success among high-achieving students today.
“I think some people don’t outwardly tell people because ... if it’s your number one school and you don’t get in, then your confidence (is hurt),” Ernst said. “But then there’s people who are really excited about it, like me.”
In situations where students always pressure themselves to get the best grades, take the hardest classes for the sake of college or study for countless hours, Ernst has come to realize that essays, in fact, are one of the most important parts of the process but certainly not the easiest.
“A lot of the prompts are like, ‘Why this place?’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s pretty and they have a good academic program, and that’s about it.’ That’s not going to be sufficient to get me in,” Ernst said.
With multiple essays to be written, Ernst has frequently had to look back on her life for the perfect idea. Along the way, she’s come to realize things she could have done differently in her underclassmen years.
“The only thing I regret is stressing out about grades. Learning for a grade sucks,” Ernst said. “Learning for the sake of learning and having fun ... is so much better. I wish I had started out with that perspective in freshman year and hadn’t been so grade-centric.”
Around college application season, most high school students are stuck indoors at home, busily trying to finish the many applications for the multiple colleges they’ve applied for. It’s a whirlwind of essay writing, late nights, stress and procrastination.
For one student however, college applications are a breeze.
Senior Zach Ring has only applied to one school — the University of Iowa — and he won’t be applying to another.
“I think the main reason for me was because there’s so many perks of going to the Iowa and what I want to do that it made sense to go to Iowa,” Ring said.
The benefits of having cheaper in-state tuition, access to the U of I’s new music building, the marching band and being a big fan of the Hawkeyes persuaded him he didn’t need to waste time on applying to other places when he was sure the U of I was the right school for him.
“(The process) was very simple. I did one application and it was great. I’m accepted,” Ring said. “I know of some people who are applying to an insane amount of colleges and are stressed and taking up entire weekends just for college stuff. I kind of understand, but not really.”
Because of his light course load and being done with college applications, Ring devotes all of his free time to his extracurricular passions and what makes him happy.
“Extracurricular activities are the big thing for me, and it’s fantastic,” he said. “The time people are putting into college apps, I’m putting into extracurriculars.”
Being involved in many extracurriculars has helped Ring decide his career path. Throughout his high school and junior high years, he has been an avid choir, show choir and band member. Because his mom also is a teacher, he’s combined both influences in wanting to become a choral director.
This wasn’t always the case, however. Like most students, Ring didn’t know what he wanted to do as a career for most of high school years.
“College really hasn’t ever crossed my mind. For a long time, I’ve been really adamant on, ‘I’m a freshman and I shouldn’t know where I want to go for the rest of my life and so I’ve kind of been putting it off until senior year,’” he said.
At one point, he was sure of becoming a chemical engineer because he believed it was a stable job and provided good pay. It wasn’t until he decided to take a Futures class at West, a class designed to help students explore career options, that he made an important realization.
“I took Futures here as a senior, which is kind of weird because it’s mostly a freshman and sophomore class, but the class talked about how the majority of people don’t end up doing what they love,” he said. “I love music and I didn’t want to end up in the majority for this so I decided to totally switch it up. I dropped physics to add on AP Music Theory so I could get more prepared for college. Futures was definitely a rude awakening for me.”
Because Ring always focused on what he loved to do, grades and classes were never a big focus, but he always believed in a mind-set his parents instilled into him.
“It’s ‘we don’t care what grades you get as long as you’re trying your best’ and I think that’s the correct mentality to have because if you force your kids to have straight As they’re going to end up getting into great schools but even if your kids get straight Bs that’s still going to be good,” Ring said. “The lack of pressure to do my hardest in school made me much more appreciative of my role in school versus, ‘oh, you have to get an A’ because then I would feel miserable.”
In an academic and moral sense, Ring represents a stark contrast from the perfectionist applying to many elite colleges
“There are a vast amount of students who are like (the perfectionist) and who am I to say that’s good or not because you could end up having a lot of choices,” he said. “However I personally feel like it’s a lot easier to say this school’s pretty neat and I’m going to just apply to this one.
“Dream school for me would probably be Iowa. It sounds weird, but my entire life I’ve never been totally focused on colleges and part of that is I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And then I’m like, I have all these of perks of going to Iowa so I might as well do that. There are so many plus sides to it. I’m so ready for college.”
To many students, the mere idea of studying abroad with no parents for a year can be an unimaginable thought. For junior Yajatra Kulkarni, it is an opportunity that will soon become a reality.
It was just last year when Kulkarni found out about the Rotary International Student Exchange Program — a program that gives high school students the opportunity to apply for a chance to study abroad for one full academic year under a host family. He discovered the chance through a family friend, whose recent trip to Germany through Rotary convinced him to apply.
“(My friend) recommended I should go this year because it’s a good experience and it helps you to grow as a person.” Kulkarni said. “I decided to do it and I think my goal behind it is to develop a maturity for myself before I get into college and to explore. I’m hoping to get an adventure out of Rotary and learn about a new culture and language.”
No matter how fun the experience may seem, it wasn’t an easy decision for Kulkarni. He realized he would have to overcome many challenges, physically and emotionally. One of the biggest hurdles would be having to graduate early and travel to go to school in the foreign country, where he wouldn’t know the language or anybody there at all.
“All of the classes will be in that language that they speak so I probably won’t learn anything and I think there will be a lot of frustration for me to try to comprehend what is going on,” Kulkarni said.
Not only will he have to keep up with the classwork in the foreign school, he’ll also have to finish his college applications before he embarks on the trip, all while keeping up with the challenging AP course load at West. That means he has to decide which colleges he wants to apply as an 11th-grader and having to deal with the fact colleges haven’t released their essay topics yet. Because he needs the topics this year, he will have to contact each college explaining his situation while gathering teacher recommendations, maintaining both his grades and extracurriculars, and preparing to live internationally.
“As I get closer to that deadline I’ll probably really start worrying about it because that’s when AP testing, finals and writing college essays happens.” he said. “It’s going to be a really really bad process.”
Another aspect Kulkarni will have to prepare for is homesickness, one of the biggest problems for students his Rotary training sessions have pointed out. Having always lived with his family and among his friends, taking this trip is a huge step.
“I’ll definitely miss friends and family because the Rotary limits your access for social media,” Kulkarni said. “You’re not allowed to constantly talk to people at home because the goal of it is to talk to people you’re living with and learning new cultures. I think homesickness will happen but I’ll probably get over it pretty quickly.”
The training sessions Rotary offers are not only to combat homesickness, but other issues students may encounter by letting students spend the night for three days in a facility learning to encounter different trouble scenarios. However, what they won’t help with are the experiences that Kulkarni will possibly miss back at West High and at home.
“When you do something, there’s always something you miss out on doing,” he said. “I think if I do this student exchange, I will definitely miss out on that entire year of high school experience in the U.S. I would be missing out on courses I would have wanted to take and I’d probably miss out on spending an extra year with my friends and family before going to college. I won’t get to spend time with my sister, so that will kind of suck because she’s really young right now so I’ve oftentimes thought about if she would forget who I was if I was gone for a year and came back. It’ll definitely create differences and gaps in communication between me and people that I care about which will suck, but I think the benefits and experiences I get out of doing the exchange will outweigh the regrets that I get.”
Going forth with this decision hasn’t been a total personal decision. The opinions of his loved ones influenced how he felt on taking this leap.
“My parents definitely supported me, but my friends aren’t necessarily supportive of it because I think a lot of them don’t see the point in doing student exchange ... they think it’s a waste of money and I should just stay and not go,” Kulkarni said. “There were a couple of times where I think I kind of doubted myself for why I’m really doing it and if there was any point in spending the $6,000 on going abroad than saving it for college, but in the end it’s going to be worth it to go abroad so I’m sticking with it.”
As for anyone else who may be thinking about the program, Kulkarni has some advice.
“You really have to set in your mind why you want to do the student exchange because if you ... treat it like a vacation, it’s not worth doing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be more work than play.
“Make sure you are willing to do it and don’t have regrets later because a year is a long time and it will be really painful. It might be frustrating at times, but you have to be willing to stick with it and it will turn out to be a really fun experience.”