My role as a private college counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area has shifted considerably over the last decade from that of a high-performing academic coach — a pusher, of sorts, of the next cool activity, intellectual insight, or passion project — to more of a life coach making sure everyone stays intact in the race to the top.

To the top: in my world, because I serve a variety of students, the top can mean either admission to ultra-selective, lottery schools such as Stanford and UC Berkeley, or breaking the barrier into a four-year college like UC Merced with scholarship (not loan) assistance. In either case, intense demand reigns supreme, making many teens’ high school years less an exploratory path to one’s “dreams and aspirations” and more like a Tough Mudder to the bitter end, pitting students against their absolute limits, and each other, in the hyper-perfectionist quest to be unique among a sea of other applicants, also on a superheroic mission to dazzle.

The pressure is on, and students, haunted by declining acceptance rates and a dearth of scholarship funds, feel the call to cram their schedules beyond capacity, racing through adolescence in unrelenting goal-driven activity. Acutely aware of economic inequality and stories of millennial downward mobility, they see admission to their “dream school” as the sole chance for securing a stable career. With great attention and precision, they design their high school years for the gaze of an anonymous gatekeeper, the now-mythic admissions officer. In an appropriate response to the signals around them, teens live to please a veritable panopticon of frenemies (myself included) watching their every move.

Parents, for their part, still reeling from the Great Recession and completely freaked out by chokingly exorbitant college costs, likewise run themselves ragged in the quest to achieve 21st-century success for their children. They understand that well-paying jobs are reserved for a slim set of careers related to STEM and business. They see the gig economy taking over. They tear their hair out about what other parents are saying and doing. The next thing they know, they’ve woken up one day as that dreaded hovering parent — the one who says too much, and who eventually or intermittently gets shut out. A few parents come to my office on their own for counseling.

How is it that I’ve found a way to soothe and strengthen both teens and parents as they face daunting stress? You can find out in Part 2.

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