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Amid youth mental health crisis, teens ask for a kinder college admissions process

By most standards, 18-year-old Gregory Woodson is a success. He works 20 hours a week as a martial arts instructor in Carson, keeps his grades up and has strong, open-minded friendships.

But as he plans for college, one word often slumbers in his head: failure.

“It’s horrifying,” said Woodson, a senior at Harbor Teacher Preparatory Academy in Wilmington. “It’s a lot of pressure because I feel like I have to choose now. I still have to figure out what exactly I want to do.”

Woodson and his fellow Class of 2023 members spent their winter months in a hurry — researching financial aid, making pros and cons lists for schools to attend, and brainstorming scholarships and admissions essays, all the while trying to shade the stressful shadow. preventing the university applications from blocking the sun.

Gregory Woodson is a senior at Harbor Teacher Preparatory Academy in Wilmington.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

That has only become more difficult in recent years. The pandemic has exacerbated the stress of college applications as the isolation caused by distance learning — as well as worries about fitting back into school or bringing COVID-19 home — have taken their toll on teens’ mental health.

“I have spoken to young people across our country who are under tremendous pressures that are affecting their mental health and well-being,” said US surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy in a statement. “For many of them, a major source of such stress is the college admissions process, which they say is less about growth and exploration and more about checking boxes and fitting into a narrow definition of success.”

It is a difficult and distressing experience for many students, especially those whose families have never had higher education or do not have the money to pay to improve their children’s chances of attending selective schools.

According to the Independent Educational Consultants Assn, students whose families can afford it can hire private college counselors, those who charge between $850 and $10,000 for a comprehensive package, to increase their chances of getting into top schools. But for those who can’t, the process remains onerous.

Woodson says the support of his friends during the college application process was crucial.

Woodson says the support of his friends during the college application process was crucial.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Whether it’s the application itself or the realization that we’re really moving from adolescence into young adulthood, where we’re going to be much more independent, that all weighs on mental health,” said Josh Godinez, a senior school counselor who is a member of belongs to the California Assn. of the school board of directors.

Seniors say the college application process is hurting their mental health in multiple ways. First, it makes them feel like they have to be perfect.

“You have to have a really good SAT score, you have to have really good grades, and you have to be excellent in pretty much any field you’re in,” said Burbank High School senior Matthew Baker. “So that’s something I always think about. I’m like, ‘Am I good enough to go to these schools?’”

Baker is his school’s varsity basketball captain and an avid volunteer, regularly contributing hours through the California Scholarship Federation and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. He wants to go to one of the campuses of the University of California, Cornell or Columbia. His goal is to study psychology so that he can become a psychiatrist and support those in need.

Woodson wants to do business with Cal State Northridge, Pepperdine University or Cal State Long Beach.

Woodson wants to do business with Cal State Northridge, Pepperdine University or Cal State Long Beach.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Even Baker, who is submitting arguably a promising application, said the expectations of parents and classmates in college are daunting, and the stress imposed at school by well-meaning adults can be overwhelming.

“It’s kind of like social media in a way,” Baker said. “A problem that many teenagers have is that we start to compare. Often I compare myself to other students in my class who are also very, very talented and outstanding. Sometimes (I think) they are much, much more qualified than I could be. That can be quite taxing mentally.”

Bakker is far from alone. Nearly two-thirds of teens aged 13 to 17 – 61% – say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Academics were by far the biggest sticking point in the survey, with about half of teens saying they felt a lot of pressure to look good (29%) and fit in socially (28%).

As someone who recently went through the college admissions process, UCLA freshman Cheyenne Fernandes understands the difficulties seniors face.

Fernandes applied to 25 colleges before getting to seven.

“With the college application process, I was very stressed because this is the accumulation of 12 years of hard work in an essay and an application,” says Fernandes, a first-generation student. “They calculate it and sometimes judge your worth based on an acceptance, which is pretty daunting.”

Many students reiterated the need for support, not pressure, from school faculty and teachers.

In a recent study by the California Assn. of school counselors, more than 35% of students surveyed said their school should provide more support through individualized academic counseling. Godinez said counselors can provide valuable resources and support for the university.

It can make a big difference.

“We prepared (students) for (their) post-secondary plans,” Godinez said. “School counselors are the ones who are in a unique position to support (students) through it all and we take pride in making sure we do that, day in and day out for our students.”

Myla Westbrooks, a senior at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, said counseling from family and school has dramatically reduced her worries about college and her career. She said she wants to go to community college and study culinary arts, become a chef and open her own restaurant.

“I’m excited that this is my senior year[of high school],” Westbrooks said. “And going to college, I don’t know how I feel about that. I am a little bit afraid. But it’s a new level of education and I’m excited about that.”

Cal State Northridge freshman Genesis Hernandez said it was hard to wait for decisions. However, she said she received excellent support from the staff and peers at John Francis Polytechnic Senior High School in Sun Valley, which helped ease nerves as a first-generation student.

“I was a little nervous and scared because I didn’t know what to expect,” said Hernandez. “But I feel like we did have that help.”

Woodson said his friends’ support has been crucial during this process, especially since they are “all in this together.”

“It’s about knowing who fits[my]environment and who fits the mindset and what’s overwhelming,” Woodson said.

Woodson hopes to go to Cal State Northridge, Pepperdine University or Cal State Long Beach. He said he wants to study in business.

“I wish people understood that we were kids back then,” Woodson said. “We are still experiencing life. We still don’t know what we want to do, but there is pressure that we have to figure out our lives at 17, 18, 19.”

Delilah Brumer is a senior at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Lake Balboa. She is editor-in-chief at the Pearl Post and an intern at the Times High school insider program, which creates opportunities for students to immerse themselves in the field of journalism. After high school, Brumer attends Northwestern University as a journalism major, hoping to become an investigative reporter.

Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.