Pressures on Students: How Selective Admissions Criteria Harms

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Excellent Sheep" by William Deresiewicz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do so many students feel pressured to be perfect? Are they competing for what matters most?

Admissions criteria at elite U.S. schools are so selective that they harm students. In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz argues that highly-selective college admissions criteria put certain pressures on prospective students and enrolled students. The harm even extends past graduation.

Keep reading to learn about these pressures on students.

Intense Pressure Harms Prospective Students

Highly selective criteria harm students who are slated to attend elite schools. Deresiewicz claims that, as students prepare to meet highly selective criteria, they feel intense pressure to prioritize achievement over experiences that build self-insight. This pressure on students takes a toll on their mental health. 

The author criticizes parents for pressuring their children as early as middle school to be perfect so they’re prepared to meet selective admissions criteria. Parents pack their children’s schedules with extracurriculars that strengthen their resumés. They pressure their children to perfect their schoolwork and prepare for tests instead of developing hobbies that nurture self-insight. As a result, students have little free time, experience intense stress, and develop a fear of failure.

How Full Should a Child’s Schedule Be?

Experts support Deresiewicz’s claim that when children are overscheduled, their mental health suffers. Kids with packed schedules eat rushed meals, sleep poorly, and lack the time to build deep relationships with peers.

Furthermore, experts on child psychology and health seem to agree that parents should find a middle ground between packing their kids’ schedules and leaving them with excess unstructured time. They offer the following tips:

Limit structure. Some educators recommend that parents allow their kids to have plenty of unstructured time, rather than filling kids’ schedules with highly-structured activities. Highly-structured activities include after-school clubs, camps, and sports. Children’s remaining time should be loosely-structured so they have the space to experience the fun of spontaneity. Examples of loosely-structured time include making art with friends and creating a den in the garden.

Encourage outdoor time. Research reveals that outdoor play, one type of loosely-structured time, reduces stress, encourages children’s self-insight, and expands their capacity for innovative thinking. Experts recommend parents avoid structuring their children’s outdoor play with rules and equipment. Doing this reduces children’s opportunities for independent, creative problem-solving.

Honor children’s interests. When children choose for themselves which extracurriculars to pursue, they’re often more motivated than if a parent chooses for them. By honoring their child’s interests rather than their own, parents increase the chances that their child will find the activity energizing rather than stressful.

Admitted Students Become Fearful Followers

Even after students are admitted to U.S. elite colleges and universities, the legacy of selective criteria continues to harm them. Deresciewicz argues that college students continue to prioritize achievement over self-insight. This emphasis further degrades their mental health and makes them afraid to pursue their own interests.

(Shortform note: College students’ mental health may decline further as members of Gen Z begin to attend college, as this generation already has higher self-reported mental health issues. Factors such as climate change, the rise in school shootings, and reduced in-person interactions degrade this group’s mental health. Pressure to succeed in college may contribute to these existing issues. On the bright side, Gen Z members are more willing than past generations to acknowledge and seek treatment for psychological issues, partly due to the ways social media outlets destigmatize mental health. Colleges should therefore be prepared to support Gen Z’s psychological health through counseling and other efforts.)

Let’s examine several reasons why students at elite colleges continue to prioritize achievement over self-insight.

Reason 1: Proving They Belong 

First, students at elite colleges feel the need to prove they belong because, after they’re admitted, they realize their peers are equally as exceptional as they are. To prove their worth, they compete with their peers: They pursue experiences that make them appear more accomplished (such as multiple extracurriculars) instead of experiences with peers that develop self-insight (such as intellectual discussions over mealtime).

Healthier Ways to Develop Self-Worth

Deresciewicz’s analysis reveals the link between insecurity and peer comparison: Students who feel insecure about belonging cope with this feeling by finding ways to feel better than others. Psychology research supports this claim, revealing that it’s human nature to derive a sense of self-worth from viewing ourselves as better than others. Doing so gives us a feeling of security that we’re good enough. 

Instead of coping with their insecurities through competitive peer comparison, what are some healthy ways students at elite colleges can bolster their self-esteem? First, experts recommend students deepen their relationships with peers. This helps them realize they’re not alone in having insecurities. Second, students can find opportunities to teach or mentor others (for example, by serving as a peer tutor at their college’s writing center). Teaching people who are new to a topic or skill in which you’re experienced can remind you how knowledgeable you are. This boosts your self-esteem.

Reason 2: Avoiding Failure

The second reason college students continue to prioritize achievement is that elite schools make little effort to deprogram students’ perfectionism. Students sign up for classes they think will be easy and avoid classes and majors that would carry a risk of failure. To them, classes and majors that prioritize career development (such as finance) seem like a safer choice. As a result, many students miss out on the benefits of liberal arts, such as developing their self-insight and their capacity to uphold democracy.

(Shortform note: The author uses the term “excellent sheep” to describe these college students. They’re “excellent” because they seek experiences that make them appear accomplished, and they’re “sheep” because they don’t stray from this approach even when opportunities for self-insight arise. In this guide, we’ll refer to these students as “fearful followers” to emphasize that selective criteria have made them so fearful of failure that they follow existing, perfectionism-driven pathways instead of charting their own.) 

Teaching Students to Embrace Failure

How can colleges teach students to embrace failure and overcome their perfectionism? One strategy is providing students with feedback on many lower-stakes assignments (that don’t count toward their final grade) instead of fewer, high-stakes ones. This method gives students many opportunities to apply a previous assignment’s feedback to their next one, and they therefore see that failing and receiving critical feedback helps them improve.

Colleges can also teach students to embrace failure by building a culture that normalizes it. One elite college began a program called “Failing Well” that offered a speaker series and various workshops that destigmatize failure. For instance, one workshop had students and faculty each build a resumé that listed their failures and what they learned from them.

Fearful Followers Become Ineffective Leaders

After these fearful followers graduate from elite schools, their impact is widespread. Deresiewicz notes that many fearful followers become leaders, citing evidence that a disproportionate number of U.S. government and business leaders are alumni of elite schools. More concerningly, he argues that many fearful followers become ineffective leaders.  

The author shares three reasons why many leaders from elite schools are ineffective. First, they rarely outgrow their fixation on outshining their peers. This leads them to pursue leadership positions so they feel like they’re at the top, not because they actually want to improve society. Second, due to their fear of failure, these leaders avoid making radical decisions that could unleash positive social change. Lastly, because they missed out on opportunities for character-building and developing self-insight, these alumni lack the imagination to envision a better society and the communication skills to connect with those they lead.

Research supports Deresciewicz’s claims that people who fixate on outshining their peers, fear failure, and lack both imagination and communication skills make ineffective leaders. Let’s examine research on each of these traits.

Competitiveness: One study found that when business leaders fixate on outshining their competitors, they make poor decisions. This is because highly competitive scenarios (such as two companies bidding to acquire a third company) plunge leaders into an intense emotional state that compromises their decision-making abilities.

Fear of failure: Research reveals that leaders who fear failure often agonize over decisions, procrastinate on important tasks, and avoid positive risk-taking. When leaders are afraid of making mistakes, their fear causes decision paralysis. They therefore opt for the safest choice (even when it’s a poor one).

Communication: Experts who see leaders as collaborative changemakers argue that leaders must actively listen to others, clearly express themselves, and phrase feedback thoughtfully. Leaders who lack these communication skills struggle to collaborate with co-leaders and constituents.

Imagination: Research shows that leaders with strong imaginations have a greater capacity for seeing problems from multiple perspectives and envisioning novel solutions. Leaders who lack these skills make decisions that perpetuate the status quo rather than improve it.
Pressures on Students: How Selective Admissions Criteria Harms

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of William Deresiewicz's "Excellent Sheep" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Excellent Sheep summary:

  • How elite colleges contribute to social inequality and harm students
  • The ways that elite schools prioritize profits over teaching
  • How governments, schools, and parents can overhaul U.S. higher education

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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