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Competitive attitude not always definitive

A handful of Scarlet Knights may have never enjoyed a ride on the REXL bus, never eaten a fat sandwich from the Grease Trucks or never attended a football game. Yet, as University students, we have all shared at least one common experience: Having suffered and survived the stress of applying to this university.

Once accepted, some probably sought refuge from these application stressors in the least scholarly of collegiate pastimes. Spring Break and St. Patrick's Day shenanigans might have succeeded as the antidote to mounting pressures — dulling the gruesome memories of after-school activities, SAT preparation classes and numbing the pain of upcoming applications. Unfortunately, many of us are still haunted by the agonizing months of lectures from nagging parents and the endless lists of advice from harried guidance counselors we faced back in high school.

The college application process is not for the weak-hearted and, with each academic year, the competition and, therefore, the expectations grow. People say that the essays were painful, and the waiting was torturous. But most harrowing was the desperate attempt to differentiate oneself from one's peers, only to feel as if it was impossible to keep up, let alone outshine them.

If it was not difficult enough to stand out scholastically in your activities and in an essay, some schools now encourage students to set themselves apart through more creative means. Tufts University has introduced an optional YouTube submission as part of their undergraduate applications, allowing students to showcase their talents, media skills and innovation.

Tufts has stated that a poorly constructed video submission cannot hurt one's chances of being accepted, nor will an impressive video stand in for low grades. However, Tufts' Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Robert J. Sternberg contends that the videos help "assess applicants' creativity, wisdom and practical skills …[and] applicants who are strong in those areas tend to have higher freshman [grade point averages] and participate in more extracurricular, leadership and citizenship activities in college." So, it is quite likely that future applicants will feel the pressure to top current Tufts YouTube sensations, like the girl who created a dance sequence inspired by math terms, whether it is optional or not.

Well, maybe you are still recuperating from the ordeal of getting into the University, but, sooner or later, you will again set out to distinguish yourself for graduate school, law school, medical school or the job market. It is a trend that will follow us the rest of our lives. And, unfortunately, there is nothing that can kill the high of Spring Break like remembering these challenges you have ahead of you.

I cannot say I am happy to be repeating the miserable pattern of building a skill set, a network and a persona to be evaluated; however, I am incredibly thankful that I was spared the process, as well as the anxiety and feelings of inadequacy associated with it, for the first 18 years of my life. Tufts may be increasing the pressure it places on college applicants, but the intensity of their application procedure is slowly being overshadowed by city private preschools.

My mother recalls that the only criterion for being accepted into preschool when I was enrolled was having crossed the milestone of potty training. I did not need to be a numbers wizard, a reading prodigy or show any artistic promise. Yet, today, private preschools with entrance exams have gotten parents feeling as if toddlers need to diversify their skills and overshadow their peers from day one.

The New York Times explored the expanding role of for-hire occupational therapists in this race to breed superior children in "Watch How You Hold That Crayon." A position, which was traditionally designed to aid disabled children in developing their motor skills, is now being used to speed up naturally acquired processes in perfectly capable kids. Within New York City upper crust families, occupational therapists are becoming a staple in childhood education rather than a last resort.  

At least parents and teachers used to pretend that we simply had to try our hardest and show some effort to gain recognition. Now, the focus is squarely on being better than the other guy. Of course, nothing is more representative of this drive to surpass one's peers than forcing early childhood development to happen ahead of schedule.

The mentality that we all need a résumé packed with clubs, awards and internships just to secure an above-minimum-wage job — or that we need to demonstrate advanced motor skills just to snag a spot in a mommy-and-me class — is slowly forcing everyone to feel inadequate.

Certainly, having a competitive attitude has done positive things for society. But, perhaps this intense pressure to be the best is simply setting most of us up for failure. With successes, rather than gaining confidence in yourself and your abilities, you are left wondering: Could I have achieved this without professional coaching? Would I have gotten this job without having padded my credentials? Did I simply cajole, rather than genuinely impress, my interviewer?

Working so hard to outperform others, we lose that sense of having given a task all we have got — always feeling as if we need to push ourselves to do more. And as the process of applying to schools and jobs becomes more aggressive, even shining applicants fear they may be unqualified. When those with top-tier skills, experience and very little competition push themselves harder than necessary, they, undoubtedly, give the rest of us a run for our money.

Those crazed parents may not recognize it, but it is not a race to be the first kid in your class to master penmanship. And Tufts may not agree, but adding an application component that is accessible for the world to see, may simply hoist already soaring levels of competition to a traumatic point. Contrary to popular opinion, we might all benefit from being given that long-lost "‘A' for effort" every once in awhile.

Larissa Klein is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English and art history. Her column "Definition of Insanity" runs on alternate Mondays.

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