An Open Letter to Guidance

Dear Guidance Department,

I would like to preface this letter by saying that I am beyond grateful to your department for all of the hard work that you all do on a daily basis. Every time I step into the guidance office, I feel welcome and am greeted by smiles from counselors that do not even know me. I have always viewed your department as a beacon of light in the infamous college process that every student embarks on. This letter is by no means meant to be a personal attack on your department, which I have grown to love and respect.

Despite these feats, I feel that a certain practice your department engages in is harmful and should be eliminated.

I am writing this letter in regards to the college banners that will be hung in the 200s hallway in the coming weeks. Although the posting of these college banners may seem like a trivial issue, I would argue the opposite. The colorful wall of top-tier colleges is less of the congratulatory gesture it is intended to be and more of a constant, flagrant reminder to already-stressed students of what they must live up to in the coming years. These seemingly harmless banners only exacerbate the school’s college-oriented culture that measures success not by the progress a student makes, but by the university one attends.  

I can vividly remember the daunting chore of having to walk past those college banners every year. Come freshmen spring, I looked at them in awe, gawking at the “Harvard University” banner and idolizing the student that had gotten accepted. Sophomore spring, I had a similar wonderstruck attitude, but it began to be tainted by something new: fear. Or as professionals like to call it, anxiety.

It should be no surprise that a recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that 30 percent of teens reported feeling sad or depressed because of stress and 31 percent felt overwhelmed. The facade of society’s “carefree youth” no longer exists. Perhaps the most intriguing find was of how stress differed with age; reported stress levels for teens were higher than those of adults. As much as adults would like to think, these differences in stress are not due to the social concern of bullying or the claim that it is a generational issue: 69% of teens reported that their stress arises from trying to get into a good college or deciding what to do after high school.

College preparation comes at a steep cost, putting significant dents not only in our pockets but in our collective wellbeing. Parents and educators feed us lies– that we will be consistently rewarded for embracing failure and trying new things– while simultaneously pressuring us to pursue mastery in nearly every part of our lives. The end goal? A much-coveted acceptance letter from a prestigious university. These mixed messages place a hefty weight on all of our shoulders. What room is there to fail if our goal requires near-perfection to achieve?

Ultimately, the college banners are a manifestation of today’s hyper-competitive society that privileges college acceptances over intelligence, compassion, and character. I most certainly understand that honoring the seniors’ hard work is a valuable and positive practice that should not be eliminated. But is plastering the college that a senior got accepted to on the wall of a crowded hallway really the best way to honor her studiousness? Shouldn’t a student be rewarded for her ability to embrace failure and try new things, as we’ve been told before?

I recognize that the university one attends can and should be a major source of pride and that some steps our school takes regarding the college process are beneficial. For example, it would be ludicrous to draw the conclusion that because college stresses students out, all discussion and signs regarding college should be eliminated. I would not advocate for guidance’s bulletin board bearing messages of college representative visits to be taken down, because it serves a constructive purpose. Equally so, I would not call upon the administration to force teachers that hang signs of their respective colleges in their rooms to take them down. What differentiates the issue of the senior college banners from these other actions is their purpose. When a teacher hangs up her college banner, she is doing so individually. This act is not done by her school’s administration and is not intended to be a congratulatory gesture. Her banner isn’t placed next to banners of every other university that Byram Hills faculty attended and graded against them by passersby. Most importantly, her banner is not placed smack-next to the banner of a teacher who was rejected from that school.

Educators who argue that this practice should continue grossly underestimate the impact that a college decision may have on a student. To some extent, even your own department can corroborate this. In an older New York Times article, counselor Susan Buchman is referenced. “Ms. Buchman tries to explain to families that the second- or third-choice college is also a wonderful place… In six months, that first choice will be a vague memory…But given all the angst surrounding college admissions, it can be a difficult message to sell. Emotions run high this season, and the anxiety level is a testament to a process that many educators believe has spiraled out of control.”  

College banners are synonymous with rubbing salt in the raw wounds of seniors that were rejected from their dream schools. Even our school’s own guidance counselor, Ms. Buchman, can attest that it takes quite a stretch of time for rejected students to heal. That stretch of time long exceeds the day when the banners will be hung.

Byram Hills has already made steps to alleviate the stress of their students, and that doesn’t go unrecognized. Students are appreciative of how the administration acknowledges mental health and its importance. The new bell is a pleasant addition to everybody’s school day. But these minor reforms are simply not enough.

The question guidance ought to ask itself is as simple as this:

Would the school like to be an exemplar of sanity and practicality in the midst of a madness-inducing college process? Or, would it like to continue with its useless tradition that serves no other purpose than to temporarily boost the egos of accepted students and further depress rejected students?

I hope you all will choose to value the wellbeing of our students over the ephemeral satisfaction that comes from bragging about them.

Thank you for your time and considering my proposal.

Sincerely,

Lindsey Perlman