By Ken Rice

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — We’re getting deep into the season of stress and anxiety.

No, not the holiday season; the college application season. If you are a high school student – or ever were – you probably know all about that. There can be so much pressure, so much fear – and so much misunderstanding. It begs the question – are we doing this all wrong?

There’s a phenomenon I began to notice during the years I hosted KDKA’S high school quiz show, Hometown HiQ.

At one point during each show, I’d ask the students to tell us a little bit about themselves. Invariably, they’d reel off a long list of achievements and activities. I met lots of National Honor Society presidents, plenty of math and Spanish club leaders, mock trial participants, editors of the student paper, musicians and athletes of every variety.

And more than a few students who would announce themselves as all, or most, of the above.

I couldn’t believe how hard these kids worked. I’d think, is it all for fun, or is it just what you do to be seen as a successful student anymore? Just what you do to get into your dream college? Is it evidence, I wondered, of an obsession to succeed?

That notion’s always stuck with me. And then recently, online, I came across a lecture given by a high school senior, bemoaning a “culture of obsession” among highly ambitious and stressed-out kids.

“They need to realize that school – it’s a part of your life, yes, and it’s an important part – but it’s not your entire life,” he said. “It is a means, not an end.”

I thought, this kid gets it. I’ve got to go find him. And so off I went to Columbus, Ohio, to meet Austin Channell.

I came to learn that Channell is an outstanding student. He could have been valedictorian, but blew it – and here’s why: He can sing. He loves music, and that’s a big problem.

Channell explained why in his lecture, delivered at a “Ted-X” event in Columbus in October.

“You see, I go to a highly competitive local high school and like many competitive high schools, my school weights AP (Advanced Placement) classes on a five-point scale, while all other classes including arts are weighted on a four-point scale. If you want a tough load, you can sign up for five AP classes and assuming you get A’s in all of them, you could end the year with a 5.0 grade point average. Pretty impressive. But let’s say you’re interested in the arts, say orchestra. Even if you take the class, get an A and succeed in it, it will significantly lower your GPA and could take you out of the running for an academic honor, like valedictorian.”

He then showed how a student filling that last class slot with a study hall – for zero points – would have a better GPA.

“This sends one message to students,” said Austin. “It is better to do nothing than to do the arts.”

Austin struck a nerve at that Ted-X event. It was as if he’d given voice to the angst of a generation with the battle cry: Hey! Students are more than GPAs and SATs!

“It was a little bit overwhelming at first,” he said. “People coming up to me and saying, oh, I’ve seen this with my kids, or, this was true for me when I was in college.”

His speech would spread far beyond Columbus. Within a few weeks, it had more than 65,000 views online.

And it turns out one of the colleges Austin’s applying to is the University of Pittsburgh.

“I would tell that student that if music and orchestra is their thing, they should be taking music and orchestra because that’s their passion,” says Marc Harding, Pitt’s Chief Enrollment Officer.

Harding says even Harvard University probably wouldn’t want an entire class of valedictorians. Too homogenous, he says, because, “The college experience, in part, is the richness of what you get from everyone around you.”

Eva Gelman of Squirrel Hill, a former Carnegie Mellon University admissions officer, agrees. She says academic achievement is only the first bar.

“Colleges want interesting students and the more selective the college, the more they’re looking for interesting students,” says Gelman, now a college planning consultant who offers her expertise to families at She says the most selective colleges want a well-rounded class rather than a whole class of well-rounded students.

Austin Channel seems to get that. He says he’s glad he took music, even with the hit to his grade point average. And he wishes more students would realize that ultimately, happiness in life comes from many things – your family, your relationships, your hobbies and your passion.

“But what won’t keep you happy is the number of 5’s you get on an AP exam. It’s not your ACT score or your SAT score,” he told the Ted audience. “And it definitely will not be your GPA.”

Eva Gelman of is having a free seminar Jan. 13 at the Cooper-Siegel Community Library in Fox Chapel. Details:

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