I love grocery shopping. I go almost every day. Choosing fresh produce makes me happy, as does finding dinner at the salad bar once or twice a week. Comparing prices at the five different grocery store chains near me so I don’t overpay for anything is a fun challenge. I like chatting with the cashiers.

I’ve been doing my own grocery shopping since the early 1980s and haven’t made the ‘paper or plastic?’ decision for around 40 years. It all goes into my backpack and occasionally an extra sack I bring from home. Not taking a store bag when shopping is one of many rules I’ve added to my life under the “Don’t forget there are over 7 billion people on the planet” umbrella.

I have thousands of rules about how to live my life. We all do. They’re kind of like computer coding we’ve written for ourselves that helps us decide how to interact with the world, and the individual combinations of rules we’ve chosen are part of what makes us unique.

Many of these rules have been with us since childhood, a time when adults played a huge role in helping us decide what rules to adopt.

  • Walk on the right side of the hallway or sidewalk so traffic will flow better.
  • Chew with your mouth closed.
  • Don’t pick flowers from a neighbor’s garden to give to your mother (she’ll probably tell on you).
  • And definitely be certain of the meaning of new words before using them. Especially with girls you have a 3rd-grade crush on, who might subsequently be told by her parents that she’s not allowed to talk to you anymore. (I’m sorry, Doris.)

We keep adding rules to live by throughout our lives, although the pace slows down as time goes by. Most slowly fade into the background of our subconscious the more we use them. They become a part of who we are and how we interact with the world, and our unawareness of them is usually a good thing. We have enough on our conscious minds already.

But these rules can affect us in ways we might not have thought of when we incorporated them into our thought processes, and sometimes the effects are not so good. It behooves us, when something in our lives is not going well, to look at whether there’s something we’re doing to contribute to the situation. Is there a rule that needs to be altered or eliminated?

And here’s where we get to college admission, because one of the rules millions of us have been adopting over the past few decades—often without even being aware of it—is:

The Harmful Rule

It’s critical for students

to always do everything they can

to maximize their options

of being admitted to

the most selective college possible.

For some, there’s a specific list of schools they’re aiming for. For others, it’s just making sure they’ve done every little thing they can to keep as many options as possible open. For all, it creates an anxious feeling that you’ve never got enough time to do all that needs to be done, because there’s no limit to how much can be done. Consequently, kids spend every hour of every day not knowing if they’ve done enough to get into a ‘good college’, whatever that may mean to them.

You can always study just a little bit longer for an exam, spend just one more hour fine-tuning a paper, put in another half hour of training for the big game or performance, etc. And this rule so many have adopted encourages a mindset in which students never believe they’ve done enough.

The inevitable stress that’s a byproduct of this rule leads students to sacrifice sleep, fun time with family and friends, peace of mind, and all-too-often their health in pursuit of something that doesn’t matter nearly as much as many believe it does. The anxiety this rule creates is unnecessary, often counterproductive, and potentially harmful to both students and adults, and I’d like to see it eliminated so you and your kids can focus your energies on more important matters, whatever they may be. Working hard is important. So is knowing how to take care of yourself by recognizing when you’ve done enough.

You’ve probably sensed that there’s a problem with this rule, but you haven’t had the time to seek out evidence to support your hunch beyond a few anecdotes you’ve heard here and there about success stories of people who didn’t follow this rule. But anecdotes aren’t enough, because there are always going to be outliers. You want data before changing a rule that you believe is important.

I love data. I’ve gathered a lot of it over the past five years and am here to share my findings with you in hopes that it will encourage you to believe that it’s okay to relax a bit.