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Her Mission: Easing the Stress of Getting Into College

By Alan Finder


Looking at colleges with her daughter was often painful, Marilee Jones recalls. Not because of anything her daughter Nora did, but because of the behavior of admissions officers and parents.

Admissions officials routinely boasted of the number of applicants with perfect 800 SAT scores whom they had turned down. Message: You’ll never get in here. They tried so hard to present their university as offering something for everyone that they failed to convey what made their institution different.

Parents did not do any better. Overly aggressive, they monopolized the question-and-answer sessions and shoved their teenagers aside to cram into sample dorm rooms on campus tours.

Unlike most parents, Jones could do something about the excesses she saw.

The dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jones said the experience made her re-evaluate many of her assumptions about college admissions.

“It helped me get real about what we’re actually looking for,” she said.

“It helped me realize what a business we have become, the spin we put on things, trying to be something for everyone.”

“It made me rethink what we do,” Jones said. “Am I an educator or am I a businessperson?”

Her daughter’s college search also persuaded Jones to begin campaigning among colleagues and parents for new ways to think about the ever more frenzied competition for admission to elite colleges and universities. She describes her goal with simplicity: to lower the flame.

An essential part of the effort is a new book, “Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond.”

Published in September, by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the book was written by Jones and Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Their central theme is that the race to get into the nation’s most selective colleges has produced a stressed-out generation, overscheduled with too many demanding high school courses and myriad extracurricular activities, and burdened by unrealistic parental expectations. The stress is making teenagers ill, physically and emotionally, Jones and Ginsburg say.

“We are raising children to please adults, and that’s unprecedented,” Jones said in an interview in her spacious, high-ceilinged office at MIT “I have real fears that this generation is being trained by us to not be creative.

We’re training them to put their focus outside of themselves, to make them measure up to everybody else’s standards, and that’s a huge mistake.”

“The solution is to give kids more freedom, teach them how to create, set up systems for them to fail and to bounce back,” she added.

Her crusade is markedly different from the mission that first brought her to MIT’s admissions office in 1979. She was hired to recruit young women, who at the time made up only 17 percent of the university’s undergraduates.

Today, about 45 percent are women.

Jones brought a varied background to the task. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry and biology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., not far up the Hudson River from her childhood home in Albany. She had worked, as well, as an emergency medical technician and as a torch singer in local clubs, performing Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday songs.

She was already living on the MIT campus with her husband, Steve Bussolari, who was then a graduate student, when she was hired as an admissions officer, in what she described as “the lowest job in the office.”

The work appealed to her, though, and she clearly had a feel for it. Jones is enthusiastic about admissions and passionate about working with teenagers. Over time, she said, she performed virtually every job in the office, from overseeing transfer applications to applications from international students. Jones, who is 55, was appointed dean in 1999.

Among her peers, Jones has developed a reputation as an outspoken advocate for change. She tends to be admired for her boldness, though not every colleague shares her conviction that the competition has become too intense and that it must — or even can — be restrained.

“She is a wonderful professional and a good friend, and she has made an enormous contribution at MIT,” said Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t really disagree that the situation has become frenzied.”

But Stetson said he was not certain that the hypercompetition could be easily tamed. “I’m not convinced that it’s all our fault,” he said.

Jones said small steps could produce broader shifts in tone and attitude.

Like the admissions officers she encountered with her daughter, she used to tell students and parents that MIT rejected lots of applicants with 800 SAT scores. The idea was to indicate how many bright people were at the university, she said, but the message heard by her audiences was quite different.

“I learned that the language we speak, admissions speak, adds to the stress,” she said. “The message is not received as it is intended.”

She now tells students that they do not need scores of 800 to get into MIT.

Jones also oversaw a redesign of MIT’s application form. It used to provide 10 lines for a teenager to list extracurricular activities. But when a high school student asked her why MIT required 10 activities, she realized for the first time that the application was sending an unintended message. The form now provides less space for activities, to convey that the admissions office is looking for involvement, not quantity.

The university also began asking applicants to write essays on unusual topics, like what they do simply for pleasure or what they learned from a disappointment or failure. MIT rewrote the internal guidelines it uses to evaluate applicants, putting new emphasis on qualities like resilience and initiative.

By themselves, these changes will not diminish the remarkably stiff competition to gain admission to top-ranked universities. Last spring, MIT accepted only 13 percent of 11,373 applicants; at least 85 percent of the applicants were qualified academically, Jones said. When she first went to work there 27 years ago, MIT admitted about 40 percent of applicants.

“I need to do what I can do,” she said. “It’s not everything, but I can do what I can do.”

“We’ve been talking about this in the business for a good three years now,” she added. “What are we doing? Why are we so hard-charging? Why are we competing like this? Is it good for students?”

Many people in higher education are cheering her on, as are countless high school guidance counselors. “I like what she’s doing, in terms of kids really feeling the stress of this whole process,” said Bob Sweeney, a counselor at Mamaroneck High School in suburban New York.

“I see too many kids spending all their waking moments throughout high school trying to make themselves into the image and likeness of what they perceive MIT and the other elite schools expect,” Sweeney said. “That thinking takes its toll on kids, doesn’t leave them much room for error or to enjoy high school.”