Advice for nervous parents of college applicants

Kids aren't the only ones who feel judged during the college admissions process.  A lot of parents understandably worry that their student's admissions success or failure will somehow be a reflection on their parenting, that if the dream college says, "No," it will be a sign that you just didn't do as good of a job as the other parents at the dinner party who won't stop talking about their kids' awards, SAT scores and total number of community service hours completed. 

When you feel that college application anxiety start to come on, ask yourself two questions:

1.  Have you raised a good kid (even if your teen occasionally tries your patience like even the best teens do)?

2.  Have you done your best as a parent (even if you've occasionally made mistakes like even the best parents do)?

If you can answer "Yes" to those two questions, really, how much more can any parent reasonably be expected to do?

A parent can't control which colleges accept or deny your student.  All you can do is make sure you keep answering "Yes" to those prior two questions.  Instead of letting yourself feel judged, be proud of your efforts to raise a good kid and be a good parent.  And remember that our entire system of education (and our society) would have collapsed long ago if the only way to become happy and successful in life were to attend one of about 40 prestigious colleges who reject almost everybody who applies.

Good kids with supportive parents will be fine no matter where they go to college.

What should parents’ expectations be for their high school students?

The stress of college admissions leaves a lot of parents rewarding or punishing kids for all the wrong reasons.

Two days ago, I shared the link to "A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps," an entry on the New York Times "The Choice" blog from a father who'd realized his son didn't have to go to an Ivy League school to make him proud. 

Today, that blog ran a selection of readers' comments, many from parents, they've received in response to the entry.  A lot of them were positive affirmations from parents who'd learned that their kids' GPAs and test scores didn't measure their worth as kids (or their parents' success at raising them).  But a few were like this one:


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Ugh. Attitudes like this are part of the problem. Your kid can be a unique snowflake and still get good grades. Kids are failing in school and at life because parents are lowering their expectations.  This P.C. acceptance … is tiresome & fake. There is nothing wrong with expecting your kid to get all As, take honors and AP courses, top scores on SAT, and get into a top school. There is nothing wrong with being disappointed if your kid fails to accomplish these goals. It is your failure as a parent, too.  Stop pretending you need to just accept your kid as is when s/he fails. Your kid can be an individual & still get top marks in school.

Parents, that is not someone you want at your next dinner party.

First, it's important to acknowledge that there are some kids who could do nothing but study and still not get straight A's in AP classes.  There are some kids on whom you could spend a fortune for SAT tutors and they'd still never come close to the average score of the Stanford admits.  Hard work can influence those things, but not every kid gets the genetic hand of cards to achieve those admissions-related results.

But more importantly, when did it become reasonable to expect kids to be great at everything?  Do you know any adults who are great at everything?  Why should we expect kids to be great at math, chemistry, English, Spanish, athletics, music, public speaking and leadership?  The admissions process at highly selective colleges rewards the tiny percentage of students who somehow found the natural ability and work-ethic to achieve exceptional results.  If any kid could do it based on hard work and high expectations alone, every high school senior class would have 75 valedictorians.  

I'm not suggesting you should lavish praise on your student in every situation.  If your student gets a D on his chemistry midterm because he blew off studying and just played video games until 2 a.m., I think a parent has a right to be disappointed. I think it would be appropriate to take away his video game privileges and tell him you weren't happy with his effort.  It's OK to expect more than that from your student.  

But if that same student tried his best and still didn't do well on the exam, praise the effort.  Tell him you're proud of how hard he worked, and ask if there's anything you can do to help.  High expectations for your kid are absolutely a good thing.  But the expectations should be tied to the effort rather than the outcome.

Let your kids know that you expect them to put in a real effort to learn not because that's what it takes to get into Yale, but because education is important.  Encourage their interests not because you heard Georgetown likes students who've shown leadership, but so you can help them find their natural talents and passions.  Focus on the bigger picture. 

There are only eight Ivy League schools, but there are hundreds and hundreds of different paths someone can take to be happy and successful.  

Sometimes a parent just needs to hear it from a fellow parent

It's one thing for me to tell parents to relax, enjoy the ride, and stop worrying about whether or not your kid will get into an Ivy League school.  But I'm sure it resonates better when a fellow parent, especially one of a college applicant, can offer up some reassurance and advice. 

From the New York Times "The Choice" blog today:

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Above all, I urge parents of high school juniors and seniors not to see their kids as SAT and ACT scores and G.P.A.s, but as creative, unpredictable, unprogrammable teenagers with their own gifts."

Dave Marcus
A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps

A message (and some encouragement) for over-involved parents

I've written a lot about how over-involved parents can actually hijack the college admissions process from their kids, a mistake that can hurt their students' chances of getting into college.  And one of our core beliefs at Collegewise is that kids need to step up and take ownership of their own college process. 

But today's entry on The Choice blog, "How Difficult Parents Look from the Counselor's Side of the Desk," actually made me feel bad for the moms and dads they were describing.  If I put myself in those parents' shoes, I'd be angry and maybe a little bit hurt that the counselors are venting about how awful I am.  So today, I'm really trying to see this from the parents' perspective. 

I can imagine how it must feel for these parents, parents who are trying their best to help their kids through something as important as college admissions, to be told that they're doing too much, that they're actually hurting their children, and that both counselors and colleges will resent them for it.

If you fit the description of an over-involved parent of a college-bound student, first of all, I think you deserve some acknowledgment that you're a good parent.  You're worried about your kid and you're doing everything you can to help your student through what has become an unnecessarily stressful and complicated process.  Lots of students who don't have supportive parents would welcome some parental over-involvement in their lives (as this student commented).  

But given that you just want this process to go well for your kids, here are a few reasons why I still encourage you to step back and let your student take charge.

1.  Once kids go to college, they'll need to take care of themselves, handle their own problems, and manage their lives. And you'll need to accept that no matter how much you may want to, you're not going to be there to take care of everything for them.  The college application process is the time when you should both be getting comfortable with those new roles, not staying put in your old ones.    

2.  Over-involved parents tend to produce passive or absent college applicants.  I know that sounds critical of your parenting, but when parents pick the colleges, the students don't have answers to the "Why are you applying here?" questions.  When parents fill out the applications and get too involved with the essays, the kids' voices disappear.  Colleges want students who are fully-engaged in determining their college futures.  When parents take charge, kids disengage.

3. As well-intentioned as your help is, a lot of kids will take it as a sign that you don't believe they're competent or mature enough to handle their college application process on their own.  I don't even think that most overly-involved parents actually believe that, but your teenager may not be able to make that distinction.   

Parenting a college applicant isn't easy.  And forcing yourself to be less involved is the opposite of the parental instinct for a lot of moms and dads.  Still, that's what your kids (and their future colleges), need you to do.  While you try to make the adjustment, maybe the rest of us can try to be a little less judgmental.    

A new film about the pressures on kids to perform

The pressure to achieve does a lot more to kids than just ruin the college admissions process.  According to a new film"A Race to Nowhere," it's producing a generation of kids with anxiety, stress-induced illness, and feelings of burnout before they even start college. 

From the film's website:

Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

You can find a list of screenings here.  And here's the film's trailer:

I’m going to college–not you

I just bought I'm Going to College—Not You!: Surviving the College Search with Your Child and there are a few things I like about it already.  

1.  The author is both the dean of admissions at Keynon College and the mother of a college student, so she's certainly got plenty of experience to guide parents in this area.

2. The book includes short essays from prominent writers about their own experiences with their children during the college application process.  I think parents appreciate empathetic reminders that other parents have been through all of this before and survived. 

3.  She doesn't excuse the colleges for contributing to the stress of the process, as she revealed in this interview:

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We are culpable. We have upped the ante with this whole arc of
marketing. We’ve had 20 years of this amped-up competition, and it’s
kind of like a gyroscope—it’s got its own momentum. We have an
obligation to serve the institution at the same time we’re serving the
student, and sometimes it’s impossible to do both. So we have to
acknowledge our responsibility in this. We have to take a chill pill
ourselves while telling parents to do the same thing.

For parents: a reminder to enjoy this time

Here's a video from Boston University showing one of the proudest, but also one of the most difficult days in a parent's life—dropping your student off at college and saying goodbye.  Warning:  If you're a crier, it might get to you.

Parents, the fact that there are over 2,000 colleges in the country means even if your kids aren't admitted to their first choice schools, both of you are going to experience this day.  Whether or not you enjoy the time leading up to it is entirely up to you. 

Don't let the stress of college admissions ruin the process for you.  Resolve that when the day comes for you to experience what these parents in the video are experiencing, you'll look back on the process that lead to it as one that you enjoyed together as a family.  It will help you keep your perspective when the SAT scores don't come back as high as you'd hoped, or when other parents turn the process into a status competition.

What you can learn from new college freshmen

Across the country this week, new college freshmen are moving into their dorms.  If you could see those kids, you'd notice something.

None of them are lamenting the rejections they got from schools back in the spring.  Nobody's talking about what their SAT scores were or whether or not they had 4.0 GPAs back in high school.  Nobody cares about any of that.  They're all too excited about finally being in college to spend time looking back. 

And none of the moms and dads who are helping their new college freshmen move into their dorm rooms are thinking about any of those things either. 

When you study hard and still get a ''C" on your chemistry test, or you take the SAT a third time and you still don't get the score you wanted, or you cross your fingers for an acceptance to Duke but a rejection arrives instead, it's easy to feel like your college dreams are slipping away.

But remember what those new college freshmen are reminding us this week.  At some point, you're going to be moving into a college dorm.  That's going to be an exciting day no matter what school you're attending.  And when that happens, things like your SAT scores aren't going to matter anymore. 

They next time you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of college admissions, when the stress is overshadowing any sense of fun and anticipation for your college future, think of those new freshmen and what it will be like when you're one of them. 

Ask Collegewise: Is this really what college admissions has come to?

Duncan asks:

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I attend the parent nights at my daughter's high school,
and I listen to everyone talking about the competition for college.  All our friends keep bringing up the test preparation courses and private tutors and
college counselors they're using.  I can't help but ask, is this really what it's come
to?  My daughter is a good student but she's not at the top of her
class.  I'm wondering if I'm being naive in thinking that she will
still get into college."  

You're not being naive at all.  The vast majority of students who start college every year weren't at the top of their classes.  They didn't take expensive test prep courses, hire tutors, or have the guidance of a college counselor.  We've got over 2,000 colleges in this country and all but about a hundred of them accept pretty much everyone who applies. 

But too many kids and parents mistakenly believe that the more selective colleges are somehow better than the less selective ones.  So a lot of good kids who work hard believe that the only acceptable reward for their efforts is an admissions to one of those supposedly elite colleges.  That's why you're seeing the kind of behavior you've witnessed.  

I'm not against kids working hard and placing value on their educational futures–smart, mature kids should do that.  And I think that good tutors, test-preparation courses and college counselors can add value for some families.  But nobody's success or failure in life is determined by an admissions decision from a particular college.  A student's work ethic, desire to learn, her personal qualities and her willingness to extract the maximum value from her college experience are much more important than the name of the college she'll attend.

So, no, what you're seeing isn't necessarily what college admissions has come to be.  It's what the race for admission to the schools most likely to say "No" has come to be.  Kids and parents get to make the choice whether or not you want to participate in that race.  And I don't think it's a very healthy race to run.

Thanks for your question, Duncan.  If you've got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com

For parents: Guidelines for emailing teachers

It should be a good thing that parents can communicate with teachers so quickly and easily over email.  But I'm not sure that the introduction of email has improved the relationship between those two parties. 

Email is actually a terrible communication tool.  All the subtle cues and tone that you can use when you speak with someone are almost impossible to convey over email.  Sometimes you sound angry or critical even when you don't mean to be.

Imagine your student comes home with a "D" on her chemistry exam.  She never told you she was struggling in chemistry and you're frustrated that she let it get to this point.  So you decide to send the teacher this email to request a meeting:

"Jenna just informed us that she received a "D" on her last exam.  We were shocked and very disappointed.  Jenna is an excellent student and she has never received anything but top grades.  We need to meet with you immediately to decide what can be done to rectify this situation." 

You're not necessarily assigning blame or being critical; you're just being a concerned parent.  But remove yourself from your parent role and imagine you're the teacher receiving that email. 

If a parent sent that to me, I'd be on the defensive.  It sounds like you're somehow blaming me for your kid's chemistry deficiencies.  I understand that Jenna is an excellent student.  But other kids did well on the exam–it's not like everybody got D's.  So clearly, Jenna has to assume some of the blame here.

Since email has become a preferred communication tool with parents and teachers, it's important to use it wisely.  Here are a few guidelines. 

1.  Use email as a tool to foster a relationship before you need something. 

If your student likes a class, drop the teacher an email and mention that "Jason just can't stop talking about how much he's enjoying your AP history class."  If a teacher stays after school to help your student, email the teacher and thank her.  Everyone likes to be acknowledged when they do a good job.  And as long as you're sincere, you'll have built some history together if you need to email for a less positive reason in the future.

2.  Be human, and be nice.

Just stating the facts can actually come off as cold and impersonal.  And negative emotions will be distorted and exaggerated in the mind of the reader.  So be a real person, and be nice.   

Imagine how a teacher would react differently in the above scenario if she received this email:

"Jenna just informed us of that she received a 'D' on her midterm.  My husband and I are both chemists so we're probably not as compassionate with our child as we should be when it comes to her struggles with the periodic table.  But we want to do the right thing and would appreciate any guidance you could give us on how we can help her.  Would it be possible to meet with you at your convenience?" 

That's a message written by a real–and nice–human being. 

3.  Don't forget to use email as a tool of thanks, too.

Here's where email can be a great communication tool.  Sending a quick, sincere thank-you note is easy and effective.  Look what you can accomplish in just four sentences:

"I just wanted to thank you for meeting with us last week.  Jenna came out of the meeting encouraged about her opportunity to improve her grade, and we felt so fortunate that she has a teacher who's willing to meet with panicked parents like us.  I can't tell you how much we appreciate it.  Thank you again, and have a great weekend."

I've written two other posts that might be helpful, too–one on how to write a good email message, and one about how to approach someone when you need help with a problem.