I wake up with sore legs from time to time. I’m not as quick as I used to be. I don’t exercise enough, I can’t drink till 3 am without paying for it for several days, and I’m suddenly forcing myself to choose fruit instead of ice cream for dessert.
Oh and by the way… I’m only 38-years-old!
Pathetic, I know.
On the plus side, I’m not a teenager facing what might be the most daunting task in the world: applying to college.
I wrote a young adult satire about the college admissions rat race called PERSONAL STATEMENT that was recently published by In This Together Media. In my research I learned a lot about how applying to college these days is very different from my experience 21 years ago: The SAT has a third section now (writing); 2400 is the new 1600; with the lowest acceptance rates at top universities in history, competition is higher ever; and the common app has become more… well… common.
But mostly I learned that being a teenager now sucks. Like really sucks. First of all – they’re the first generation to grow up on the Internet. That means much of their lives is out there in cyberspace for the world to see forever. To critique, laugh at and retweet long after they’re gone. If Facebook was around when I was in middle school, I would never have ever outgrown my camp nickname of “puddles.” (I drank a lot of soda and was really tired, okay, guys? It happens to lots of people, look it up!)
Of course, the Internet would have scared teenage-me, but these kids embrace it. I recently talked to two juniors at a private school in Maryland who told me about a classmate who’s been making beauty videos and blogging about her life on her own Youtube channel since 8th grade and now has over 125,000 subscribers. (When I was in 8th grade, I worked at a tennis club for minimum wage and could barely tally up the receipts at the end of the day.)
However, the thing that I think sucks most about being a teenagers today is that while it used to be fine to have pretty good grades and maybe one solid extracurricular and have no fear about getting into a decent college, now kids are expected to be awesome at everything just to get into their safety school! They need to speak another language (and Spanish doesn’t cut it, it’s gotta be Arabic, Mandarin, or that African dialect where they click every other word!) Then there are the instruments they need to master: piano, violin, the glockenspiel. Of course getting straight A’s goes without saying, but a 4.0 isn’t what it used to be. You need those weighted AP classes to give you the coveted 5.0 GPA. And SAT prep is starting for some kids as early as seventh grade! Seriously? Picture yourself as a twelve-year-old. Taking an SAT test. For PRACTICE! When I was 12, I just wanted to watch “Saved By The Bell” and play Nintendo. I barely knew what an analogy was.
As if that wasn’t enough, they also need to be eco-conscience and citizens-of-the-world and volunteer ten hours a week at a homeless shelter for kids of veterans with cancer.
And Sports? One father told me “Yale needs fencers” so he signed his daughter up for fencing lessons.
She was in the first grade.
If I had to submit my lame 1992 Personal Statement today, I’d be lucky to get into a community college. But I think I’d trade that for the insane measures kids today have to go through in an attempt to stand out from the crowd. They have over 4 hours of homework a night on top of a 7 hour school day, plus sports and activities, making 70-80 hour weeks for these kids that can’t legally drink yet! (If I had to work 80 hours a week, I’d have a vodka vending machine installed at the office.) More than 97% of high school students admit to cheating at least once during their academic careers because they were afraid to get a bad grade, many rely on Adderall and other drugs to stay focused, the psyche wards in California see a rise in admissions every spring around exam time due to teen stress, and there’s been a dramatic increase in teen suicides over the last 20 years. Which begs the question: is high school burning out our teenagers before college?
In her wonderful documentary Race to Nowhere, Vicki Abeles notes that we’ve created two generations in a row of “kids with training wheels” – students who are forced to churn out 1500-word term papers and regurgitate dates and facts but lack the critical thinking skills necessary to actually do well in society. No Child Left Behind has created a kind of “treadmill to mediocrity.”
In other words, it really sucks to be a teenager today.
So what’s the answer? I’m not sure. It seems that competition for college admissions will continue to increase – for a while at least. Until kids decide that a four-year-degree isn’t the only way to Make It in America. And I believe that day is coming. I believe that Harvard will always be a desirable goal for parents and their kids, but also I think the “Teenage American Dream” is changing and success can be found through other avenues – not just straight A’s and an Ivy League degree. But those changes will take time.
Until then, I feel for you, teenagers out there. I really do. But I’m also glad I don’t have to go through what you’re going through right now. Because I’d never make it out alive.