Preparing for college vs. preparing for life

In the years after I started Collegewise and was still counseling students myself, I learned that there were different kinds of high achievers in high school.

Some of the kids I’d meet were genuinely curious and interested in learning. They had a favorite subject and teacher. They chose their activities based on what they enjoyed, and they thrived brilliantly in at least one. They were engaged in their college planning, thinking about their futures, and while they were often interested in at least one highly selective college, they were resolutely confident that no matter where they ended up, their traits and work ethic would take it from there. Their stellar records in and out of the classroom were byproducts of their inherent make-up, not the product itself they’d worked to manufacture. And most notably, these kids were almost always driving their own goals and education, cheered on and supported by their parents, but not managed or directed by them.

The other kind of high achiever looked similar on paper, but they made every high school decision based in pursuit of those recorded achievements. Whatever they’d been told the most selective colleges want, that’s what they’d do. Whatever it took to get the “A,” or to raise the test scores, or to excel in an activity they believed colleges would find desirable, that’s what they’d do. It wasn’t about their own interests or fulfillment. Their work and in fact much of their high school life was predicated on achieving a desired result and eventually a desired outcome in the form of an admission to a highly selective college. In pursuit of that outcome, their days were filled with commitments, from classes to tutoring to extracurricular activities, leaving them overscheduled and under-rested year-round. And the desire to achieve those outcomes was shared or, worse, explicitly led and directed by their parents. My colleague Arun, who read applications for University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA, defines these kids as “trained to execute, but not to initiate.”

I want to be clear here—those executers have a laudable drive. In fact, many of them work much harder and much longer hours than some of the hardest working adults I know. And for years, I assumed that while those kids would get to college and not necessarily abandon that work ethic, they would happily adjust to their new world where they were encouraged and in fact required to take agency for their own life and education. But since I began writing this blog ten years ago, I’ve learned I was wrong.

Lesson #19 of my final 31 posts: When we overprepare kids for college, we underprepare them for life.

When kids arrive on college campuses having spent the last four years with every decision, every metric, every goal focused on achieving a specific outcome, they’ve been trained to get the right answer. They’ve been trained to ask, “Will this be on the test?” They’ve been trained to follow directions, to do what they’re told, and to expect that every challenge put in front of them is best attacked by getting the allusive right answer. But as I’ve written before, you can’t earn straight A’s in life. And that’s exactly why so many of those students, when confronted with a comparatively simple problem like a class that conflicts with their internship, will ask their parents to intervene. They don’t have the past experience or the current tools to handle what they’re facing. Their overpreparation for college has left them underprepared for life.

This is an area where I don’t fault those kids or their parents. They didn’t decide that our society would fetishize the 50 most selective colleges in the country in spite of the fact that those schools don’t produce better outcomes or happier graduates. They didn’t decide that seemingly everyone involved in this process would emphasize grades, test scores, and other pursuits of the correct answers, or that so many colleges would reward perfection in those areas. They didn’t decide that the way those aforementioned colleges ultimately make decisions would so often be shrouded in mystery. They’re simply responding to those influences.

But with all those pressures, the associated rise in the rates of teen depression and anxiety, and the rising cost of college that has only increased the need for a tangible college ROI, there’s an urgent need to help those kids, to relieve them of these notions that if they can just work hard enough to achieve high school perfection, they’ll have climbed the mountain and be prepared to succeed in a similar fashion for the rest of their lives. And until we see a broad, systematic change in the process, the best place to start is at home.

To those parents who protest that it’s their teen, not Mom or Dad, who’s applying all that perfectionist pressure, I believe you. And that makes it even more important that you set the example at home to praise effort over outcomes, to resist the urge to over-parent, and to do your most important college admissions job well.

For additional evidence of, and advice to address, this problem, here are some of the best resources I’ve found.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean of freshmen who I’ve referenced over a dozen times on this blog, wrote a best-selling book and delivered an equally popular TED Talk on this topic. If you agree in principle that our kids deserve better but don’t know where to start to help them, her resources are the best I’ve found.

The folks at Challenge Success offer some wonderful resources, including Raising Well-Balanced Kids, a slew of short videos on specific topics, and some excellent advice to help kids thrive in school. Their co-founder, Madeline Levine, also wrote an excellent book, Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes.

And Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams–a manifesto that asks “What is school for?”–is available as both a PDF and a TEDxYouth talk.

I’ve never met one of those executing high achievers, or the parent of one, who didn’t genuinely believe they were behaving in the best interest of the student’s future. And I don’t fault either party for that inclination. But the statistics and the anecdotal evidence are there. And it’s time we all shift our focus from preparing kids for college to preparing them for life.