Not-so-harmless embarrassment

I worked with a student years ago who told me that when her father drove her to middle school every day, he’d roll down the windows and purposely blare his “old-time music” as he approached the school’s curbside. Then he’d yell, “Go get ‘em honey—another day to excel!” as she exited the car. She still rolled her eyes about it at age 17, but there was also a touch of love for Dear Old Dad as she retold the story.

I’ll admit that I usually find it endearing when a parent does something that exasperates their teen to the point of venting, “You’re embarrassing me!” They’re usually harmless acts with no lasting damage done, even to the most fragile of teen psyches.

But last week, an admissions officer from a selective college posted a description to a private social media group of some recent parent behavior during the school’s tours, none of which seemed endearing.

One parent demanded to sit face-to-face with the admissions representative responsible for their territory. The current admissions officer who was slated to speak with interested families? Not an acceptable option, apparently.

Another berated the tour guide, who was unable to immediately fulfill the parent’s request to speak with a mechanical engineering professor.

And yet another showed up outside the scheduled group tour times, was unhappy that they would not immediately do a tour just for her family, and then not only inserted herself into a private tour organized for a specific high school, but also dominated the Q and A portion at the end.

What’s most troubling is that it wasn’t just one parent, and the incidents weren’t isolated. These kinds of behaviors are showing up regularly from parents of potential incoming freshmen.

That post included an acknowledgement that not all parents are like this. But it concluded with a reminder of just how important it is for students to speak for themselves.

Parents, there’s nothing wrong with you being an engaged participant in your student’s college search. It’s your child, after all, and you deserve to be included and heard, especially if you’ll be paying the bill.

But if your behavior—on a tour, at a college event, on the phone with the admissions office, etc.—demonstrates that you’re demanding and difficult, that you expect concierge-like service, and most troublingly, that you do not allow your student to ask their own questions and make their own collegiate discoveries, you’re embarrassing your student, potentially in a not-so-harmless way.

Decision time

Seniors have until May 1 to make up their minds about which of their offers of admission to accept. If any soon-to-be college freshmen (and their parents) are wondering…

Do I really have until May 1 to make up my mind? Some of these acceptance letters make it sound like I won’t get housing if I wait that long.


Can I put deposits down at more than one school so I can take more time to decide?

…then, please see this past post, which answers both questions.

A toolkit money can’t buy

Stanford Radio just aired this interview with former dean of freshmen and author Julie Lythcott-Haims on the dangers of overparenting and how to avoid that behavior. But she also takes the time to acknowledge that the overparenting phenomenon is present primarily in upper middle class families with parents who have disposable time and money and can invest resources to direct and manage their kids’ lives. A working class family holding down multiple jobs doesn’t have the same amount of time and money to invest in what she calls “cultivation of childhood.”

So what did she notice in both groups of kids when they arrived at Stanford? This portion starts about 28 minutes in:

“…as dean, I saw first-gen kids, kids from working class or poor backgrounds, come to this campus with such a sense of self. When they had a problem, they would say, ‘How am I going to handle it?’ They would come to me for advice. But they spoke with a strong letter II’m going to try this and I’m going to try that. I’ll come back and see you and follow up. Whereas their more affluent counterparts were more likely to text their parent and expect their parent to jump in and handle the problem, whatever it was. So they [under-resourced kids] basically came to campus…with an extra tray in their toolkit.”

If you’re a parent who isn’t able to spend time and money to shadow, cultivate, and orchestrate every moment of your kids’ lives, you can take some pride and comfort in the fact that you’re likely helping them learn some of the important skills they’ll need to be successful as young adults.

And parents with time and money to invest should be proud and appreciative of the life you’re creating for your family. But remember that if you can step back and embrace the opportunities for your kids to find their own way, to make and learn from their mistakes, and to manage their own challenges, you’ll be helping them add a tray to their toolkit, one that money can’t buy.

For counselors: two questions for student meetings

For counselors meeting with students and parents to discuss college planning, those 60 or 30 or 15 minutes are precious. Here are two questions to ask—one at the beginning of the meeting, the other at the end—to help you make that time count for you and for them.

Before we start, what do you want to make sure we cover today?

Asking this question right at the beginning, and paying close attention to the answer, shows the family that their needs are your priority. But it also allows you to triage the topics. Not all topics deserve the same amount of time or priority. Some may merit diving into right away. Others might make more sense to talk about after you’ve progressed through your own topics. You’re their counselor. And part of helping them means prioritizing their concerns and using your time together in the best way. Getting their most important topics on the table at the start puts the focus on them, but keeps you in control of the meeting flow.

What else?

“What else?” is general. It’s borderline vague. And that’s intentional. Asking, “What other questions do you have?” or “Is there anything else I can help you with?” makes people think twice about whether or not their remaining topic fits in with your proposed subject heading. But when you ask something as open-ended as “What else?” you give people room. And they’ll often surprise you with what they bring up.

Some counselors might resist that final question. After all, it’s not always helpful to have another item spring up on the agenda at the last minute. But that question, concern, or other topic is still there, unaddressed. Better to get the chance to address it now than to wait until the final application minute.

If/then vs. now/then

Too many students make college-planning decisions using the if/then model.

If it will get me extra credit, I’ll participate in class.

If I get elected to a leadership position, I’ll take on more responsibility.

If it will help me get into an Ivy League school, I’ll perform some community service hours.

But the if/then approach leaves too many of your decisions to chance, circumstance, or the whims of other people. Wouldn’t you rather be in charge of yourself?

Instead of if/then, why not try now/then?

I’ll participate in class now; then the teacher will see how engaged I am.

I’ll take more responsibility now; then the club members will know that I’m someone who gets things done.

I’ll do community service and make a difference now; then I’ll be proud of my contributions when I apply to college.

When you take the “if” out and start now, you’re in charge. You get to create your own “then.”

It’s your time, after all. And while you should be deliberate about how you spend it, you’ll get a lot better results when you spend less time waiting for “if” and more time doing something now.

No parents allowed

Some friends were recently telling my wife and me that their four-year-old daughter began ballet classes a few months ago. But until the first recital, they’d never actually watched their tiny dancer do any ballet. It’s not that they aren’t invested parents—they are. But the instructor has one rule that must be followed: Parents are not allowed to observe the classes. In fact, they need to physically leave the building for the entirety of the class.

Four-year-olds can be easily distracted. And according to the instructor, that’s especially true when a parent is within their child’s field of vision. The problem is only exacerbated when parents can’t help but snap pictures, film video, or even lob their own instructions to their newbie ballerinas.

When it’s recital time, parents (and their cameras) are invited and warmly welcomed. But the classes are for dancers only. No parents allowed.

When I write often here about the need for parents of teenagers to stop hovering, to step back, and to allow their teens to take more responsibility for their own lives even if that means occasionally letting them fail, it’s never lost on me just how much worse the opposite problem would be. Better to be a little too invested than to completely ignore your student.

But in your search for the right balance, consider whether or not your presence (at the practice, the performance, the tournament, etc.) is a positive addition for your teen. When in doubt, just ask your son or daughter. Express how interested you are, but acknowledge that they should get to decide whether or not they want a parent in the literal or figurative stands.

It might be a temporary blow to your ego not to get an invite. But if given the choice, you likely would not want your teen in the room when you give your big sales presentation, or when the boss is delivering your annual performance review, or when the results are announced for the PTA election in which you’re a candidate. It doesn’t mean you love your kid any less. It just means that sometimes, having an audience creates more stress than it does support.

Our friends easily embraced the “No parents allowed” rule as an opportunity to take a nice walk together for an hour every Saturday. Maybe staying back can benefit both you and your student?

Engage, attend, and cheer on when you’re invited and welcome. And when you’re not, accept—and embrace—when no parents are allowed.

What are you doing this summer?

One of the many symptoms of the college admissions frenzy is the extension of classes, activities, and other seemingly productive expenditures of student time and energy into the summer months. While the intensity may be misguided, the spirit is not. Motivated, curious, interesting students don’t want to spend their summer sitting on the couch every day. That’s why so many colleges ask students to describe how they spent their summers. They can learn a lot by how you choose to spend your time when you’re not on the clock.

But just about every college in the country—including the most selective—would also encourage you to enjoy some downtime this summer. Sleep in, go outside, see your friends, and do lots of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with getting into college. Even professional athletes have an off-season. And teenagers, especially those who work hard in challenging classes and demanding activities during the school year, need time off to rest and recharge.

If you’d like some suggestions on how to plan a summer that will not only be enjoyable and productive, but also allow you to be a teenager rather than a resume-building machine, here are two Collegewise resources I share annually.

First, here’s my past post, 50 Ways to Spend your Summer.

And here is the far more detailed Collegewise Summer Planning Guide.

I hope you use them, and more importantly, I hope you share them with fellow students, parents, and counselors.

More on the class rank debate

The public school system in Spokane, Washington, recently announced that they will eliminate both class ranking and the valedictorian system from high schools. Walt Gardner, a 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District and a lecturer at the UCLA Graduate School of Education, disagrees with the decision. And Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, disagrees with Walt.

Clearly, there are smart, informed people on both sides of the “Should high schools rank students?” debate. But that’s not the point of this entry.

Walt argues: “When students enter the workplace, they will be assessed in one way or another, whether they like it or not.”

Denise argues: “We [Challenge Success] have found that eliminating valedictorian status and class rankings has reduced stress at certain schools — especially those where achievement in the form of grades and test scores and college admission rates is valued above all other traits.”

But there is a way that students (and parents) can have the best of both the worlds that Walt and Denise describe. There is an approach that will allow you to learn from a system that assesses you whether you like it or not, but without causing undue stress. Here it is:

Accept your high school’s policy about class rank, whatever it is. Then get back to focusing on things that matter and that you can control, like your effort, goals, engagement, etc.

Decisions about school policies like class ranking should be made carefully. What works for one school or student population may not work for another, and there is certainly nothing wrong with communities of students and parents having their voices heard in those discussions.

But it’s important for students and parents to remember two things about class rank:

1. You almost certainly don’t get to control what your school decides to do with class ranks.
2. You will not meet an adult whose current levels of happiness and success are tied in any traceable way to whether or not their high school decided to assign them a numerical class ranking however many years ago.

I’ve written about the class rank debate before, and that past post includes a link to a good write-up on the University of Virginia’s blog. But the themes are always the same. The more time and energy you expend debating your school’s class ranking system, the more frustrated you’re likely to become. And the less time and energy you’ll have to invest in things that will make you both happy and successful.

Still spot-on today

There’s nothing particularly new or surprising in high school counselor extraordinaire Patrick O’Connor’s “The Ten Things We Learned this Application Season.” And that’s precisely why I’m sharing it here.

So much of the buzz, confusion, and anxiety surrounding college admissions comes from the sense that it’s an ever-changing process. Moving targets. Changing rules. One small mistake, missing piece of advice, or lacking kernel of information away from total admissions disaster.

Yes, some things do change, sometimes in a big way. The FAFSA had a new deadline this year. Individual colleges can change their requirements, filing deadlines, or application options. You can’t assume that everything your older brother or sister (or your older children) experienced will be exactly the same the second time around.

But the most important steps, the core tenets of college planning, don’t change. In fact, every single item on O’Connor’s list was true when I founded Collegewise nearly 18 years ago. And they’re still spot-on today.