Try moderation?

Most things considered good for you can be done in moderation, excess, or not at all.

Doctors will tell you that regular exercise will lengthen your life, while spending the majority of your time on the couch will shorten it. But most would also agree that running a marathon once a week is best reserved for elite athletes. Moderation is the healthy approach for the masses.

Eating plenty of vegetables and limiting your sugar intake is a much better diet than subsisting on cheeseburgers and soda alone. Yet all but the most stringently health-conscious can say yes to the occasional indulgence with no adverse long-term effects.

It seems that in many college-going communities, excess is the most commonly chosen path. Take every AP class. Get tutors for every subject. Raise your GPA. Mind your class rank. More test prep equals higher scores. Garner accolades. Add community service and leadership on your resume. Find a life-changing story that’s essay-worthy. Work your connections. Aim for the most prestigious colleges. Push, push, push. Do whatever it takes. Just. Get. In.

Some families openly acknowledge that they hate that approach, but feel compelled to adopt it anyway for fear their kids will be “left behind.” If everyone around them is playing the game for keeps, it feels reckless not to suit up and compete.

Do you feel like your college planning could use some moderation? If any of this sounds familiar or in some way resonates with your family, here are a few questions and considerations to think about as you navigate the college process.

1. There is no legislated mandate about how to approach the process, even if you may feel there’s an unstated one. Every family should decide for themselves not just how much emphasis they want to place on getting into a good college, but also just exactly what a “good” college is. And both of those decisions should be more about the student than the parents, social pressures, or college rankings.

2. What does “left behind” actually look like in practice? Most kids who apply to highly selective colleges don’t get in (that’s what makes those schools highly selective—they turn away almost everyone who applies). It’s hard to form a fact-based argument that those who did the work but got denied by their dream schools are now somehow behind those who did get the coveted offers of admission.

3. Have you seen evidence of B or even C students receiving a lifetime personal or professional demotion because of grades or test scores they earned when they were teenagers? Grave or catastrophic mistakes in high school can certainly be life-altering. But one C in biology just won’t be.

You have college planning options, and they aren’t limited to excess or not-at-all. In fact, moderation just might be the perfect prescription.

Take the most challenging courses in the subjects you love, and just do your best in the others. Prep a little for your standardized tests, take them once or twice, and move on. Choose activities you legitimately enjoy and will look forward to every day. Worry less about fixing your weaknesses and spend more time playing to your natural strengths. Learn things that interest you, treat people right, be a good person, and engage in your planning for your future.

Guess what? Most students who follow that plan will find that there are literally hundreds of colleges ready to accept them, schools that might not top the US News rankings, but hey, you were taking the moderate approach anyway.

Even better, more data than ever shows that if you lean into all the opportunities for learning and growth that college will provide you, you’ll be just as likely to forge a happy and successful life as those who took their college planning to excessive lengths, no matter what college’s name ends up on your diploma.

It’s not for me to decide what approach your family takes. But please remember that it is, in fact, a choice–one you make with your actions and your words as your kids progress through high school.

And if you feel the choice you’ve made doesn’t work, or maybe wasn’t actually your choice at all, maybe it’s time to give moderation a try?