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.

Pronoun guidelines for parents

I received an email from a parent last week asking about how to find volunteer opportunities for her son.  Here's an excerpt:

"I
was thinking about volunteering him at a hospital or maybe at a local soup kitchen."  

It's
coming from a good place.  But wherever that kid ends up, he won't
actually be "volunteering"; he'll just be doing what his mother told him
to do.  And no college admissions officer will be moved by a student
doing things that his mother organized for him.  Kids impress
admissions officers by showing the initiative, skills and drive to
locate and secure those opportunities on their own.

A parent can
certainly help when a student asks for it.  Making suggestions or
recommending steps he can take are completely within the rules.  But
doing it for him is out of bounds in the college admissions world.

Marilee Jones coined the term "pronoun abuse" when it comes to parents inserting themselves in their kids' college admissions process.  If you say things like, "I'm organizing," or "We're applying," or "Our applications,"
it's likely that you're doing things for your kids that any
college-bound students can and should be doing on their own.  Stick
with "He's organizing," and "He's applying," and "His applications."

So parents, watch your pronouns. The
more your student does for himself, the more successful he'll be
getting into college, and the more prepared he'll be once he gets
there.  Let your pronouns be your guide.   

What’s your story?

I was meeting with a Collegewise family once when the student revealed that his now bald father had an afro back in college.

The dad held his hands six inches from his head and said, "It was out to here."  

As the student sat there giggling, I told the father how hard that was for me to imagine.  And he had the perfect reply with an exaggerated, relaxed college tone.

"Hey, it was the seventies, man." 

Every respectable adult I’ve ever met who’s been to college has a story to tell, a story from a time when they weren’t always so smart, perfect and grown up.  That’s part of college.  Kids get to make their mistakes and be who they are (afros and all) with impunity, knowing that as long as they manage to learn something in their classes along the way, they’re pretty much going to be OK.    

Parents, when you feel the stress of your kids' college process getting to you, think back to your college days and what you were like back then, how you spent your time, and what path you took to become the responsible adult that you are today.  I'm hoping if you do this, it will remind you that you have good kids who will enjoy the opportunity to create their own stories at whatever colleges are lucky enough to get them. 

Thoughts for parents about college costs

One of the difficult parts about researching colleges is that kids have to apply without parents knowing what it is actually going to cost.  You know the listed price (tuition, room and board, etc.), but you don't know how much financial aid you receive until you are actually admitted to the school.  So how can parents assign any kind of financial guidelines to the kids' college search?

If your kids are starting to talk about colleges and you're starting to worry about the costs, here are three basic guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Don’t necessarily eliminate a college based on the cost.

Every financial aid talk I've heard emphasizes how much money is actually available for college.  And the amount of aid you can receive isn't dependent only on how much money you have (or don't have).  The academic strength of the student, her match with the school, and the college's desire to have her on campus can also influence a financial aid award. So while I wouldn't recommend applying to a list of schools that are all out of your price range, don't necessarily limit your list to colleges you're sure you can pay for. 

2. Talk with your kids about the cost of college.

I don't think parents should feel obligated to hide the economic realities of college from their kids.  It won't hurt kids to know how much money is being invested in their education; a student who knows how much his parents are sacrificing to send him to college is more likely to get up for that 8 a.m. calculus class every day during his freshman year.  Don't forget that while parents may be paying the tuition, student loans are taken out in the student's name.  And it will be the student–not the parent–who takes that on-campus job as part of a work study financial aid award.  That’s why college financing is often a family decision whether you want it to be or not. 

3.  Consider picking a financial safety school.

Consider encouraging your student to apply to at least one school where you're sure the student
can get in, you're sure he'd want to attend, and you're sure
you could pay for it even if you got no financial aid.   

Choosing test prep

It’s easy for students (and the parents paying the bill) to get paralyzed by the options available to them to prepare for the SAT or ACT. You have books, online courses, weekend seminars, long classes and private tutoring, to name a few. And the price tags range from free to more than the cost of many teens’ used cars. It amounts to a lot of pressure.

No matter what your testing goals, time or budget, here’s some advice about making your test prep choice.

1. Beware of prep peer pressure.
Like most things in high school, the fact that everybody else is doing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, too.

About 25 percent of our Collegewise students don’t do any test preparation, and it’s not because they’re all great test takers. A B student who applies to colleges loaded with kids just like him will find that his average test scores are good enough. You’re not going to Berkeley, USC, NYU, Duke or Boston College without high test scores; but if you’ve found colleges you like and your scores are already higher than those of their admitted students, what’s the sense in doing test prep?

Before you decide to prepare for the SAT or ACT, research the colleges that you’re considering and find out what the average score is for students they accept. Take your list to your counselor and ask for her opinion about how your current scores (PSAT, PLAN or a practice test) stack up.

If you and your counselor decide you’ve found some appropriate colleges and you would benefit from higher test scores, do some test prep. But don’t do it just because everybody else is doing it.

2. You get out what you put in.
This is one of those times when a cliché is actually true— no matter how reputable and expensive the test preparation, you’ll get out of it what you put into it. That’s true for any kind of self-improvement you pay for. You could hire the best personal trainer in town who worked all your friends into Olympic shape, but if you don’t do the workouts (and eliminate regular servings of your beloved French fries), you’re not going to get the desired results. Like fitness, good test scores can’t just be purchased. The effort has to be there.

3. Spend wisely.
There are many low-cost preparation options, from shorter courses to books, that have all the same information taught in an expensive class. The biggest difference is if your parents buy 25 hours of private tutoring, you’ll be forced to spend 25 hours preparing for it. Books and shorter courses are far more lenient on the reluctant prepper. Some kids will study for standardized tests even when they aren’t forced to, but a lot won’t.

If you do decide to take a class or work with a tutor, ask for recommendations from friends who’ve already prepared.

4. Don’t go overboard.
The amount of time a lot of students spend studying for the SAT and ACT exams is often totally disproportionate to the tests’ importance. If you’re spending more time doing test prep than you are doing homework, running with the cross country team or spending time with your family—stop; it’s time to do less.

Test scores are important at lots of colleges. But they’re never important enough to sacrifice time that could be spent getting better grades, playing better basketball or painting better pictures.

Test preparation needs to fit into the rest of your schoolwork and your life. Choose your time of year to prep wisely and apply some good time management when you do. If you feel pressured to ignore other important areas of your life, sacrifice the test prep first.
Efforts to turn average test takers into great test takers usually don’t work and make those kids feel badly about themselves. Put in some appropriate time and work hard to improve your scores. Even if you’re not happy with your results, be happy with your effort. Then move on to other things you enjoy.

If there were one method that turned every kid into a standardized test-taking world champion, everyone would already be choosing that option. So pick the one that fits your schedule, budget and comfort zone.

Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted