David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Future Anxiety

Amy’s senior year schedule is as follows: AP Calculus BC; AP English Literature; AP Chemistry; AP Government and Economics; Spanish IV; and Yearbook, a publication of which she is the editor. Her scores on the SAT and the ACT are in the 90th percentile. She is active and involved in a number of long-range meaningful activities including community service and soccer.

She has applied early decision to Duke University in North Carolina. She and her parents live in a state of unrelenting anxiety about the process of applying to college. Amy, her mom, and her dad take benzodiazepines daily to relieve the remorseless apprehension: what if Amy had a 1500 on the SAT rather than a 1450? What if she were in the top three percent of her high school class rather than the top five percent? What if Amy had not gotten a B in AP Human Geography back in 9th grade? What if Amy is rejected from Duke, her first choice school?

Which is certainly one way to go about it.

If Amy’s situation reminds you of a person living in a five million dollar, nine-thousand square foot home who complains obsessively about a loose handle on the microwave in the downstairs kitchen, you are not alone.

One view would be to consider that the glass is full to the point of overflowing. Amy is brilliant! Amy is motivated! Amy is polite! Amy is in good health! Amy is active and involved! Who could ask for more?

Who could ask for more? Well, Amy and her parents for starters. They are asking for more in that they feel strongly that the world will come crashing to an end if Amy is not admitted to Duke University.

Here’s another way the family could choose to live its life: they could enjoy Amy’s last year of high school. They could relax. They could be grateful. They could note, for example, that Amy is not in the hospital with aplastic anemia, dependent on weekly blood transfusions to keep her alive. They could leap around overcome with joy and gratitude that Amy is so smart, motivated, and pleasant. They could be appreciative that they have the financial wherewithal to finance Amy’s private college education. They could internalize that if Amy does get an unlucky roll of the dice at Duke, that there are any number of awesome institutions that would be pleased to admit her, where she would participate in an (equally) splendid education.

Many of my gentle readers will find it hard to be sympathetic to Amy and her parents. Is Amy’s family complaining that the hot and cold running champagne in their shower doesn’t have enough bubbles? Are they expressing outrage that the steak and lobster are not to their satisfaction? Or is their out-of-control, screaming anxiety to be understood? “With the rich and mighty always a little patience,” points out Jimmy Stewart as Maccauley Connor in The Philadelphia Story. Is there a reason for the angst of Amy and her parents?

My colleague, Jon Reider, worked in admissions at Stanford. Jon points out, “the psychic thermostat around admissions seems to have risen a lot.” There is a “kind of micro-preoccupation with tiny things.”

My take is that kids and families feel out of control. It’s not that privileged families want a bigger slice of the pie, it’s just that they don’t know how much pie they need.

Yogi Berra reminds us that, “it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” Because the future is uncertain, it’s hard to know what tools to give our children. Maybe admission to Duke is the safeguard against the pandemic. Maybe admission to Duke guarantees a secure job, marriage partner, life. Of course, admission to Duke does nothing of the kind. But in these ambiguous times, wouldn’t it be comforting to think that it did?

So I’m going to be as sympathetic to Amy and her parents as I possibly can. I’m going to accept that their pain is real. I’m going to agree with Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) also in Philadelphia Story that “the best time to make up your mind about people is never.”

But in the meantime, I am going to continue to endeavor to help all the Amys of the world understand that who you are is more important than where you attend; that anxiety is debilitating; and that the uncertainty of the future notwithstanding, there is something to be said for enjoying the senior year of high school with a bright, motivated, pleasant child.



One thought on “Future Anxiety

  1. Martin

    I find myself wondering whether if Amy’s parents had, without involving her of course, made a 6 or 7 figure donation to Duke, they my alleviate their anxiety a bit. Surely that would be better than taking benzodiazapines which can have harmful side effects over time.
    Of course, your suggestions to them to enjoy their daughter while they can, and to her to enjoy her top-of-the-world senior year of high school seem far superior to anything else.
    Notwithstanding, knowing them as you do, it seems possible to me that they could more easily consider my idea.

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