Music to my ears

I met with a student last week who's trying to decide which college he should attend.  He's a smart kid who's worked hard in high school and was torn between two good options.  His parents sat there quietly, listening, not even interjecting while we chatted.  So towards the end of the meeting, I asked them where they thought he should go.  And his reserved mother who hadn't yet said a word just said,

"This is his decision, and we support him.  He can go wherever he wants as long as it makes him happy.  That's all we care about." 

You should have seen how happy that kid looked knowing that he'd already made his parents proud no matter what college he was about to choose. 

I think she should teach classes on parenting during the college process.    

P.S.: He chose UC Davis, by the way.  Go Aggies.

For parents: how to pick your student’s high school

A lot of families with 8th grade students come to us looking for advice in choosing high schools (public vs. private and which private to attend).  Here are a few things we talk about with those families. 

1.  Where does your student want to go?

That's not a trivial question.  Just because an eighth grader doesn't want to compare the features and benefits of particular high schools doesn't mean you shouldn't ask him where he wants to go.  The first step in being successful in high school is getting happy and comfortable in your surroundings as quickly as possible.  Where he wants to go, even if his only reason is that his friends will be there, should be the first thing you consider. 

2.  Remember that high schools don't get kids into college; kids have to do that themselves.

Some families want us to tell them which high school will do the best job of getting their students into selective colleges.  It's important to remember that no high school gets a student into college.  A high school can provide rigorous course offerings, a dedicated college counseling staff and a student body full of high-achieving students, but it's still up to the student to work hard and take advantage of those opportunities.  Smart, hard-working students get into college no matter where they go to high school.

3.  Private schools aren't inherently better than public schools.

Sure, not all high schools are created equal.  But we've worked with hundreds of successful students from both public and private high schools, and we've seen no inherent advantage in enrolling a student at a private high school.  That doesn't mean that some kids won't flourish at a private school much better than they would at a public one.  But that's dependent on the student more than it is the school.  Not everyone needs an expensive gym with a personal trainer to get in shape, but some people swear by them.  The same can be said about private schools and educating a student. Make the decision based on what is best for your student, not by which school claims to be the best.

4. Don't avoid competitive environments for the wrong reasons. 

The smartest kids never have to say to us, "If I'd gone to a less competitive high school, I would have been at the top of my class."  The best students rise to the top of whatever environment they're in.  The fact that your student doesn't respond well to competitive
environments, or that he lacks academic confidence, or that he needs a
more nurturing environment might be good reasons to pick a school that's
known to be a little less competitive.  But don't pick a less demanding school if the only reason is that you hope it will be easier for him to stand out.   

5.  Focus on the next four years, not the four after that (yet).

Most high schools have little control over where your student will be accepted to college four years from now; they can only control how your student is educated until then.  And you have no idea what your student will be interested in four years from now, either.  So don't try to predict the future.  Instead, make decisions based on what you know about your student today.  A student who loves music today should be at a high school where he can have fun in a strong music program.  A student who works best when he has frequent interactions with teachers needs to be at a school that will give him that.  The student who thrives on competition and has soaring academic confidence needs to surround herself with the best and brightest over-achievers.

And most importantly, remember that you're not going to ruin your kid's future by choosing the wrong high school.  I'm not saying it's not an important decision, but lots and lots of happy and successful students come out of whatever public school they were directed towards.  It's hard to make a life-defining mistake with this choice. 

How parents can help

A worried mother at a local high school's college night last week told me,

"My daughter has worked so hard.  She'll be just devastated if she doesn't get into one of her reach schools."

It was clear that she, too, was going to be devastated if those schools didn't admit her daughter.  And while she is undoubtedly a good mother who only wants to see her daughter happy and fulfilled, that question she asked is exactly what's wrong with the way too many students and parents approach college admissions today. 

Why is an admissions decision from a particular college the only award that will validate her daughter's hard work?

Why are the colleges who are most likely to say "No" the only schools that she finds desirable?

Is devastation an appropriate emotional response to an admissions decision from any college?

The belief that the most competitive schools are the best, achievement in high school driven solely by a desire to gain admission to a college who rejects almost all of their applicants, and the implication that a rejection from one of those schools is a tragic event–that's what's wrong.  That approach takes what should be an exciting time for a family and turns it into a grim process where your chances of success are roughly 7-20%. 

But parents can do a lot to fix what's wrong here. 

As much as many teenagers may appear to dismiss the opinions and advice of Mom and Dad, the truth is that every kid wants to please his or her parent. 

So parents, when you see your teens working hard, applaud their efforts.  Tell them how proud you are of their work ethic and their accomplishments.  Let them know how many wonderful opportunities will be waiting for them wherever they go to college.  Encourage them to work hard for the right reasons, not to gain admission to a small group of selective colleges, but because they'll be better educated and more fulfilled and prepared to handle the intellectual rigor of college life. 

And most importantly, remind them that none of that will change if Berkeley or Duke or Notre Dame says, "No."  Remind them that you won't be "devastated"–they shouldn't be, either.

Mental health tips for parents of the college-bound

Parents inevitably share the stress of the college application process (sometimes you may unwittingly be the source of it, but that's a different blog entry). 

When the SAT scores don't go up as much as you'd hoped or when the C on the geometry test comes home, parents feel that stress.  When you hear all your friends talking about how hard it is for kids to get into college today, you take on that stress.  The stakes feel so high that the passage from high school to college has become a something of a bootcamp that kids and parents just hope to survive.

Parents, if you feel yourself wondering if it really needs to be this hard (the answer is "No," by the way), here's an exercise that might help. Ask yourself these ten questions.   

1.  If you got together tonight with your old high school friends, what stories would you likely reminisce over?

2.  Same question, but with your college friends. 

3.  What's the most irresponsible thing you did back in high school or college, the kind of thing that seems a world away from your responsible, parental self today? 

4.  In what class(s) did you struggle in the most?  

5.  What was your most colossal failure in high school and in college?

6.  What was the most fun you remember having in high school or college (no surprise, really, if it's the same as your answer to #3).

7.  What's something you did in high school or college (or both) that you would be embarrassed to admit to your kids today?

8.  If you could re-live one week of your high school years, what week would you relive?

9.  Same question as #8, but for your college years.

You're inevitably conjuring up memories of fun, frivolity, and failure.  And you can hopefully laugh about most or all of them because, after all, you were a kid.  We all were at one time.   And nobody has an adult's mindset at age 16 or 18 or 22.  Part of being a kid means doing things that you laugh about once you're a responsible adult.   

So, here's my final question. 

You turned out OK after just being a kid and not worrying quite so much about test scores and whether or not an Ivy League school would accept you.  What makes you think your kids won't, too?

Knowing your path vs. finding it

20 years ago, the student body president of my high school went on to
UCLA as an economics major.  He said he might want to
be a politician someday, which made sense at the time.  But today, he's an emergency
room physician and the Associate Medical Director for NBC
Universal. 

In first period Spanish, our teacher used to ask the same
kid every morning to read the daily bulletin.  He did everything he
could to draw that process out and delay the start of class, including
making up stories off the top of his head.  His record was a 20-minute
class delay. He went to UC Santa Barbara, primarily for the same
reason a lot of kids still do–because of this
And today, he's the vice principal of a high school.

But
the math wiz who scored over 750 on
the math SAT (with no prep) as a junior, he went to UC Berkeley as a
mechanical engineering major, then got his PhD in engineering.  Today, he's the director of engineering at a company
making cleaner, renewable fuels.  I'm guessing that none of his old friends
who find him on Facebook are
surprised by what he's doing or how successful he is.

The engineer became what he knew
at age seventeen he wanted to be. 
He picked his college and his major based on a career path that he'd
already identified, one for which he'd already discovered the aptitude to be successful.

But
the doctor and the vice-principal didn't go to college to follow a
path; they went to college to find one.  Rather than identifying their
future careers while while they were in high school and then choosing a college and a major that would take them to that future, they used their
time in college to discover what their real talents where and to find the path they wanted to follow.

A lot of parents we meet at Collegewise
express concern that their kids don't know what they want to study in
college.  I understand those concerns, and I don't think a student should apply
to college without thoughtfully considering what their potential
academic interests might be.

But most teenage kids aren't like the engineer I knew back in high
school.  Most are more like the doctor and the vice-principal, excited
for the opportunity to attend college for reasons that have nothing to
do with future careers.  I think that's OK. 

Most successful people didn't pick their path back in high school.  Instead, they discovered it when they were in college, a time in their lives when they had the freedom explore their interests.

If you're a parent and you chose your college like the engineer did,
understand that while that worked very well for you, it might not work
so well for your kids.  If your student can't plot the
next four or ten or thirty years of his life, he's not necessarily directionless; he's just a normal
teenager. 

He'll find his path once he gets to college.

Lessons taught at “Preparing for College Night”

I spoke to a group of eighth grade parents last week about the college admissions process they'll soon be facing as their kids move into high school.  Here are the five tips I shared with them at the end of the talk.

1. Kids should take the most challenging courses they can reasonably handle.
The more rigorous her high school classes, the better prepared a student will be for college academics.  A college will be more impressed by a student who earns B’s in difficult courses than they will by a student who earns A’s in easy ones.  A student should not, however, challenge himself so much that he loses sleep, sanity, or the ability to enjoy his activities.  Hard work is good.  Academic-induced misery is not.    
 
2. Students should study (a little) for standardized tests. 

Standardized tests like the SAT or ACT are an important part of the admissions process at many colleges.  But they are never the most important part.  Taking a course, or buying a book, and doing some focused preparation is a good idea.  But turning into a professional test-taker and spending inordinate time and money just takes kids away from their classes and activities.

3. Encourage kids to choose activities they love.
There are no prescribed extracurricular activities that “look good” to colleges.  Colleges just want kids with passion. If your student loves soccer, encourage him to play on the team, to go to soccer camp, to referee games, and take his interest as far as he would like to.  The same goes for artists, musicians, stamp collectors, kids who are involved in youth group and those who love their part time jobs.  As long as the activity is not covered by the criminal code, colleges will be impressed if a kid really commits himself to it. 

4. Don’t rule out any college because the sticker price is too high.
Not everybody on an airplane pays the same price for a ticket.  The same can be said of students and the price of attending their particular colleges.  There are billions of dollars in financial aid available and plenty of places where you can learn how to get it.   Two of the best sources of information and advice I’ve seen are www.finaid.org (it’s a treasure trove of free information about financial aid and scholarships) and the book “Paying for College Without Going Broke” by Kalman A. Chany. 

5. Be careful who you listen to about college admissions. 
Whenever a parent asks me a college admissions question that begins with, "I heard that…," two things are usually true about the statement that follows.  1)  It's wildly inaccurate, and, 2) It comes from a source that is in no way associated with college admissions.  I don't take advice on dental hygiene from my stockbroker, and you shouldn't take college admissions advice from your friends and neighbors.   Admissions officers, counselors and other professionals are reliable sources of college-related information.  Most other people are not.  Seek out and accept information from those in the know.   

Moving the goalposts

Exclusivity breeds popularity. 

The more exclusive the
night club, the more we wish we could get inside (and the longer the
lines outside will grow). 

The popular kids in high school aren't necessarily the nicest or the smartest–it's
the air of exclusivity that makes them popular (an air that disappears
approximately two-and-a-half minutes after graduation, but still…). 

When celebrities were seen wearing ugg
boots, the prices and the demand soared to a
point that for a time, the boots were very difficult to get.  The harder they were to find (and pay for), the more people wanted to wear them.

The night clubs and the cool kids and the uggs aren't necessarily better than their counterparts.  They just benefit from the part of human nature that makes us desire something more if we can't get it. 

The most exclusive colleges, and their associated popularity, work the same way.

There are over 2,000 colleges to go around.  We are lucky to be living
in a country with the best, most accessible system higher education in
the world.  No matter what you read in the press about how hard it is
to get into college, just about any kid can go. 

But the same 50 schools keep getting more and more competitive, with greater numbers of highly qualified applicants vying to gain admission every year.   The more difficult it is to get in, the stronger our desire to go to those schools (or see our kids go to them).  We believe there must be something special about those places because so few people are invited to attend.  That's why when you hear people talk about the "best schools," they're almost certainly basing that analysis on one factor–how difficult it is to get in. 

Kids today are working harder, studying more, and sleeping less in an effort to get into what amounts to an exclusive collegiate nightclub whose very appeal is the fact they reject most of their applicants.  That's an academic arms race in which no amount of hard work and success can guarantee victory.

What if we moved the goalposts?  What if we encouraged kids to work hard with a different goal in mind, one that won't need the validation of an admission offer from an exclusive college.

A kid who works hard in challenging classes, who studies for his SATs, who makes an impact in his activities, who’s nice to his peers and respectful of his teachers will be better educated.  He will be more mature.  He'll probably have a better sense of his real intellectual interests and inherent talents. He will be more prepared to succeed during and after college.    That should be reason enough to do it.  That kid doesn't need an admission to an exclusive college to prove his worth (or his parents' worth).  

He will, of course, also be admitted to hundreds of colleges.  Most of the 2000 colleges will trip over themselves for this kid.  But if it's not UC Berkeley, or Yale, or Duke, or Stanford, or Pomona, he hasn't failed.  He'll still go to a college where he will use his talents and abilities to make a success of himself.  

I have nothing against the popular schools; I'm against kids and parents putting too much luster on them just because they're exclusive.  There are lots of valid reasons to work hard and improve yourself, but trying to get the popular colleges to like you shouldn't be one of them

It might be time for some different goals.

How to handle college rejections

This is the month when the majority of college decisions arrive home.  And while there will be a lot of happy squealing and celebrating by the mailbox, it can also be a disheartening time for students when a college for whom they were holding out hope doesn’t come through with an offer of admission.

I don’t want to minimize that disappointment.  Many kids today (I believe unfortunately so) predicate their hard work on goals to be admitted to particular, often very selective, colleges. For those kids, it’s an especially painful sting when those colleges say, “No.”

But like break-ups, bad hair cuts, and embarrassing moments, the pain associated with the rejection will eventually pass.  Here are a few tips to speed up the healing process a little.

1. Maintain your perspective.

You are allowed be disappointed by a rejection.  But (warning, a little tough love coming here), you are not allowed to treat the rejection like a tragedy.  This isn’t a tragedy; it’s a disappointment, and all successful people have their share of them.  It’s important to remember how lucky you are to be living in a country with the best system of higher education in the world.  Wherever you go, you will carve out a college experience that you’ll one day tell your kids about.  It’s still going to happen, and that’s something worth appreciating.

You should also know that while not everybody gets into their first choice colleges, statistics show that the vast majority of college students report that they are very happy where they are.  Seriously, can you blame them?  Have you ever been to a college party?

That statistic is a good thing.  It means that thousands and thousands of students who were right where you are today, students who felt the sting of a rejection from a college they loved, are reveling in their college lives now.  It will happen for you, too.

2. Try not to take the rejection personally.

College rejections often feel bitterly personal.  But a rejection does not necessarily mean that the admissions office didn’t love your essay or appreciate your activities or think you wouldn’t be a great addition to the campus.  A rejection often just means that there weren’t enough spaces to go around.  So don’t think that a rejection invalidates all of the work you’ve done.  It just means that you’ll be taking that work ethic with you to a different college.

3.  Move on.

Not getting into a college you loved is a little like going through a break-up.  Break-ups can be rough.  It’s almost impossible to imagine feeling the same way again about someone else.  But you always do eventually (have you ever met a 20 or 30 or 50 year-old who’s still devastated over a high school breakup?).  You just have to put yourself out there and find someone else.

A college rejection is a lot like that.  It hurts, but you’ll get over it faster if you let yourself move on. If you’ve been accepted to other colleges, you already have your suitors awaiting you.  It’s like getting dumped at noon and having six voicemails by 2 p.m. from desirable people who want to date you.  If only romance worked that way.

You won’t remember this rejection in a few months once you move into a dorm.  So you’re allowed a brief period of college-rejection mourning if necessary.  But as quickly as you can, move on.  Start to imagine yourself at one of the other
colleges.  The sooner you begin falling in love with a college that said, “Yes,” the sooner you’ll be excited about the next four years. And speaking of that…

4. Look six months down the road.  

One of the best ways to get over a college rejection is to look ahead six months from now.  This September, you will be moving into a dorm.  You’ll be meeting your new roommate while your parents exact a promise that you’ll call home on a regular basis.  You’ll be buying a sweatshirt bearing the name of your new college. You’ll go to your first college class, start making your initial college friends, and officially begin your life as a college freshman.  Do you have any idea just how exciting that’s going to be for you?

Six months from now, the college rejection that stings today will be a distant memory.  That’s why rejections don’t dash college dreams in the long run.  Once a student commits to a college who said “Yes,” the rejections and their associated pain will disappear.  I promise.

5.  And here’s a tip for the parents.

The most important advice I can give a parent whose son or daughter receives a disappointing rejection is to remember that your kids are looking to you to set the example of how to handle it.  I recognize that this is a lot of pressure on a parent, especially given that you can’t help but share the same disappointment your kids feel.  But as adults, we’ve had more experience handling life’s disappointments. Kids are relatively new to this and will inevitably follow a parent’s lead.

Tell your son or daughter your love and pride doesn’t change because a college said “No.”  Be excited about the schools who said, “Yes.”  And most importantly, show your kids what it means to just be thankful for health and family and the chance to attend a college at all. Your kids will follow your lead.

This is how it’s done

I admit it–I've got a collegiate crush on the College of Wooster.  I've written about them before and this probably won't be the last time.  But for now, I'll hold off on my praise for Wooster and instead praise a parent I've never actually met.

This is a video, presumably shot by a father, of his son Kyle's freshman orientation day at Wooster (parents are encouraged to attend this day at Wooster–and lots of them do so). Wooster tradition dictates that the Fighting Scot marching band leads the new freshman through the campus to their first convocation where they are reunited with their parents. 

My favorite part is at the 0:57 mark when the father yells, "Kyle!  Kyle!" from behind the video camera in a valiant attempt to get his son's attention. And Kyle does his best to ignore his father, just as any 18-year-old college freshman would be virtually bound by law to do in this situation.  

Parents of students who are going through the college application process can learn a lot from this video. 

No, you should not fill out applications for your student.  You should not write his essays, pick his colleges for him, or in any way hijack the process from your college applicant.  One of the most important steps a parent of a college applicant can take is to back off and recognize that this is your student's college process, not your own. 

But you retain the inalienable parental right, nay, the parental obligation to embarrass the bejeezus out of your kids with overt displays of pride and excitement over whichever college they choose to attend.  Don't hold back.  This is the time to let loose.

The College of Wooster is not what you would call a "name-brand" school.  But this parent obviously knows that how famous a college is should have no bearing on his level of excitement for his son.  He's out there with his video camera capturing every moment of his son's experience (and then posting them on YouTube!).  This is a father who's taking his responsibility to display parental pride seriously.

Kyle may act embarrassed now, but I bet he will later recall fondly how happy his father was to see him starting college. 

Parents, you've got a choice to make.  You can pin your excitement on the admission of a few selective colleges, crossing your fingers in belief that anything less than an Ivy League acceptance just won't be good enough for your son or daughter.

Or you can resolve to get the video camera out and flaunt your pride wherever your student ends up in college.  It might not be easy for some parents, but this dad shooting the video is showing you how it's done.