For parents: when your delivery is all wrong

Take care in your delivery.

Imagine your son or daughter is getting married and you want to look your best on the big day. So you get a haircut, buy a new outfit, and visit a tailor to make sure it’s perfect. You spend a lot of time getting ready until you’re sure to look your best not just at the event, but also in all the pictures that will live on.

Then you show up to the wedding and your son or daughter says, “I don’t like your outfit at all. You’d look much better in something else.”

Wouldn’t you be hurt? Wouldn’t it seem insensitive? Wouldn’t you feel dejected to have all that time and care and pride you’d taken be so flippantly dismissed?

So imagine how your student feels when you read their college essay and say, “I don’t like this topic at all. You should write about something else.”

You might be right about the topic (though please read this post, and this one, before you decide). But your delivery is all wrong.

For parents with kids departing for college

Chris Alexander is a professor and dean at Davidson College. His recent Washington Post article, As drop-off looms, a professor’s note for new college parents, is one of the best I’ve read on the subject of parenting your college-age kid.

If you’re sending your son or daughter to college this fall, please read it. And if you’ve still got a few years to go, bookmark it and return to read it later. It’s difficult to not only be compassionate when you advise that parents back off, but also to give specific advice about the new kind of parenting your student will need while they’re in college. Alexander definitely pulls off both.

Five tips for parents who’ve been through this before

For parents who have been through the college admissions process before, your familiarity with the territory can lead to a much smoother, more enjoyable ride for you and for your younger kids. But it can also lead to frustration if your veteran expectations don’t align with college admissions reality. So here are five tips for parents who are about to go through the college admissions process again.

1. Expect it to be different.
It’s natural to let past experiences leave us feeling as if we know exactly what to expect the next time around. But like many of the milestones you’ve enjoyed with your younger kids, their college admissions process will likely not be the same—for them or for you—as it was when you navigated this with their older sibling. Instead of hoping for predictability, expect it to be different. Celebrate it as a sign that you’ve raised unique, interesting siblings, each with their own personality, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. Your past experience still has value—if you learned that visiting eleven colleges in four days is too exhausting for your family, you can make a different decision this time. Just don’t expect that tours, trips, or takeaways will be the same. You’ll enjoy this more if you don’t expect predictability from an inherently unpredictable process.

2. Don’t compare.
Life as a younger sibling can’t help but involve the occasional—or frequent—comparison to their elder cohorts in the house. But the college admissions process is one time when a student needs to feel like it’s all about him. Don’t draw comparisons to where elder kids applied, how many times they took standardized tests, or how their admissions results played out. It’s hard for a student to take—and feel—ownership of their college admissions process if it’s constantly being compared and contrasted with that of their older sibling. I’m not saying you need to discount the fact that someone else in the house has been through this before. But high school students get plenty of measurement and comparison to other kids just by preparing for college. Home should be the one place where there’s no curve to compare against.

3. Focus where you have control.
It’s tempting for parents who’ve been through this before to expect that as veterans, they’ll be able to engineer a flawless process with perfect results. But no matter how grizzled you may be, you can still only influence, never fully control, how your student approaches the college admissions process. And you certainly can’t dictate whether or not a college says yes. So focus on the parts that you can control. You can decide how you approach this process with your new applicant. You can resolve to enjoy this time. You can allow your student to take the lead.  Accepting that you can’t control the process during this time is vital for both rookies and veterans. But parents who have experience need to understand that your newfound admissions knowledge won’t necessarily mean newfound control.

4. Recommit to your most important job.
A parent’s most important job during this process is to be the parent of a college applicant. Yes, you should let your kids take ownership of the process. But they need your guidance, encouragement, and occasional cheerleading. And even more importantly, they need you to show them how a mature adult handles stressful situations. Put more bluntly, your kids are taking cues from you, and they need you to not act like a lunatic on their behalf. This is not an easy job to do. But the best place to apply your learning from previous experience is to yourself and the important role you need to play. This applicant is different from your last applicant. But your overarching—and most important—job is not.

5. Let your most important lesson inform you.
Parents who’ve gone through this process before have probably learned the single most important college admissions lesson—things eventually work out. With all the anxiety, heartbreak, and other drama that so often accompanies this process while it’s happening, the long-term reality is that no lasting damage is done by one grade, test score, or admissions decision. Most kids get in someplace and enjoy life in college. Families emerge unscathed and enjoy life together on the other side. The process itself will be different this time. The collegiate outcomes likely will be, too. But the end result will almost certainly be the same. A suspenseful movie isn’t so tense when you’ve watched it before. And for this particular story of college admissions, you already know the wonderful spoiler.

High expectations + unconditional love

I consider myself an odd combination of a parenting novice and parenting expert.

My son is 18 months old, and I’m the first to admit that in spite of all the books, websites, and other sources of supposed parenting expertise that my wife and I have consumed since we learned he was on the way, every day, I’m reminded that I have no idea what I’m doing. Almost everything that works with one child may have the direct opposite effect with another. And anybody who tells you that they’ve figured it all out is fooling themselves. Welcome to the new parenting club.

But I have worked with hundreds of teenagers and their parents in the 17 years since I started Collegewise. I’ve noticed which kids seem the happiest and most balanced. I’ve noticed which parents seem to find more joy than frustration as the parents of teenagers. And I’ve noticed which families seem to have the best relationship with each other.

Almost without fail, they were the families with parents who combined high expectations with unconditional love.

They didn’t necessarily expect their kids to be perfect—their high expectations focused more on effort and character than on the outcomes. They appreciated their kids’ strengths and accepted their weaknesses. But while the expectations were clearly in place, there was never a time when one of their kids felt like their parents’ love was predicated on GPAs, test scores, or admission to any particular college.

I expect that when my son is a teenager, I’ll find that striking this balance—like just about all aspects of parenting—is much easier to say (or to share on a blog) than it is to pull off. If it were that easy and that universally effective, everyone would be doing it.

But if you’d like to see this concept of high expectations combined with unconditional love explained succinctly (with a visual aid), check out author Dan Pink’s new two-minute video featuring a tidbit from frequently-featured-here psychologist Angela Duckworth.

You may not get the balance right all the time. But it’s nice to know what to shoot for. And my statistical sample says that this is a parenting approach that (usually) works.

Recommended reading and viewing

Here are a couple reads (and one viewing) worth taking in over the weekend.

For students and parents, Denise Pope of Challenge Success and her interview with Frank Bruni, author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, is well worth the hour of your time.

For counselors, Patrick O’Connor, high school counselor extraordinaire, offers his recommended approach to the significant changes we’ll see in this year’s admissions cycle, like the new SAT, the Coalition Application, and the Prior-Prior-Year for the FAFSA.

For private counselors:

Warren Buffet has a surprisingly simple 3-word secret guaranteed to make your business succeed. And here’s Basecamp’s Jason Fried with some thoughts on how to say you’re sorry (hint: “We apologize for any inconvenience” is not it).

Have a great weekend.

Experts worth listening to

I’ve written before that some of the worst people to listen to when it comes to college admissions advice are your friends and neighbors. College admissions isn’t exactly astrophysics, but there are plenty of people—high school counselors, college admissions officers, and private counselors—who are much better qualified to advise your family on something as important as getting into college.

But I’d like to make a small amendment to that recommendation. Go ahead and seek advice from friends and neighbors…whose kids went through the process 5, or 10, or 20 years ago.

I know what some of you are thinking.

But they won’t know the latest information! They won’t know if applying early decision will improve my kid’s chances, or if these ACT scores are good enough, or if UCLA needs trombone players…

You’re right. They’ll have no idea, which is exactly why you shouldn’t listen to them or to your friends who are currently in the process. What they can give you is some longer-term perspective.



People whose kids have long since completed the process and graduated from college might tell you their daughter was devastated when Northwestern said no, but found collegiate love at Penn State. They might tell you that Dream School U wasn’t so perfect after all. And yes, they might tell you that they made mistakes that could have been prevented, mistakes of the parenting or admissions variety.

And you’ll probably see quickly that while they recall their lives during the college preparation phase, they’re much more excited—and happy to discuss—where their kids are today. That’s where the good stuff really is.

College admissions may feel like an arms race where your children’s future happiness and success are at stake. But it’s really just a phase. An important phase, yes–one that deserves to be given care and attention from students, parents, and qualified professionals. But the ride to college can and should be an exciting time for your family. You’re only going to do this once with each of your kids, and like so many phases, it will be over before you know it.

Your friends and neighbors don’t know what your student should be writing her college essay about. But if they’ve already put kids through college, if they’re already on the other side of this phase and enjoying the next one where they parent a young (or older) adult, then they’ve been where you are, and they are where you’re going. Those are experts worth listening to.

Life’s transcript

There’s a growing body of research showing that grades, which can become a game of extrinsic motivators, are actually detrimental to learning. But when officials at a school district in Chicago recently replaced what they believed was an outdated letter grading (A-F) system with more comprehensive “Progress Guides,” parents rebelled and demanded the school switch back. We’re not talking high school transcripts here—the letter grades were replaced only for kindergarten through six grade math, and science in seventh and eighth grade. Still, the backlash was so strong that the schools are considering reinstating the letter grades. You can read the story here.

I think what this district tried to do was both smart and enlightened, but I don’t completely fault the parents here. Letter grades are entrenched. Most of us were brought up with them, the colleges use them, and no parent needs a study guide to interpret the bottom-line achievement when they see a grade of A-F for their kid.

So parents, here’s an invitation—go deeper than the transcript. Report cards will reduce your student to grades. But you can value, discuss, and encourage real learning.

Ask your kids about their favorite subject. Let them tell you about their favorite teacher. Acknowledge their strengths before you race to correct perceived weaknesses. Encourage and feed their curiosity, inside and outside of the classroom. Praise effort over outcomes. And most importantly, make sure your kids know that you love them for who they are, not for their GPA.

The student who’s curious, unafraid of challenges, self-aware, and resilient may or may not get a 4.0. But they’ll likely fare well on life’s transcript.

Complaining isn’t a strategy

In the early days of Collegewise, when I would spend my days meeting with families, there were always a few names that I was notably less excited to see on my calendar for the day. And for me, they all fit into the same category—complainers.

For these families, every meeting included time spent listening to who or what had somehow disappointed, frustrated, or otherwise seemingly worked against them.

My Spanish teacher won’t raise my B+ to an A-.

The counselors at our school don’t know anything.

The principal refuses to change our school’s class ranking policy.

Our point guard only gets to start because her dad is friends with the coach.

My son should have gotten into AP US History—he’s smarter than most of those kids in that class.

It’s not fair that I have to compete with kids who go to easier high schools.

Of course that kid gets straight A’s. His mother spends her days just standing over him.

(None of those examples are fictional or embellished, by the way.)

Sometimes it was kids. Other times it was their parents. And in the worst cases, the entire family would complain, feeding off each other’s negativity.

I’m not talking about customer service challenges. If a customer was unhappy for some reason, getting annoyed by it wouldn’t have helped me or them fix the problem. That’s part of running a business.

These complainers had goals in mind, and anything at all, real or imagined, that seemed to get in the way, they perceived as a personal slight, a misfortune, or an injustice. There was nothing that could be done to make them feel better. They were going to gripe about it, one way or another.

Here’s the most important thing I wish those, and today’s, complainers could understand—none of their complaining ever once improved their situation. In fact, they were actively working against their own goals by expending so much time and energy focusing on things that were in the past, out of their control, or inconsequential.

Life isn’t perfect, and neither is the college admissions process. The happiest, most successful, most productive people find a way to accept those imperfections as par for the course. If they can do something to improve their situation, they’ll do it. If they can’t, they’ll move on to other things.

If your family is feeling negatively about the ride to college, if you’ve traded excitement for anger or frustration, try to stop and take a step back. Is whatever’s eating you worth this energy? Will this matter to you in five years? Are you making it worse by focusing—and complaining about—something that’s done, or out of your control, or comparatively insignificant, or all of the above?

Complaining will always be an option. But it will almost never be a good one. And it’s never an effective strategy.

Be a good teammate

Arun shares this (previously shared on the College Counselor Facebook page) from the women’s rugby coach at Quinnipiac University. While written for athletes hoping to play in college, many of the observations have direct crossover to non-athletes applying to college as well.

For example (though I do acknowledge the irony in the writer scolding a student for poor punctuation, but then making numerous errors herself, which I’m leaving unfixed here):

Our staff explained to your parents that we would prefer to connect with you directly, but they continue to respond on your behalf. This will be a red flag for any coach, so please be aware of this feedback being a possibility from any of your other options.

When you visited the campus with your parents, the first thing I noticed is that they [your parents] did most of the talking for you.

In the second half, when you scored I noticed you waited for the other players to huddle around you and celebrate. In contrast, when a teammate scored, you retreated to your position without acknowledging or congratulating them.

You added much depth in the scoring category with some impressive runs but when you made mistakes you became vocal and eager to point out where your teammates needed to improve.

Getting recruited isn’t just about athletic ability, and getting into college isn’t just about your GPA and test scores.

Parents, let your kids drive the process. Students, show the initiative to take the wheel. And remember that whether or not you’re an athlete, being a good teammate goes a long way.

When infractions and applications collide

Many college applications ask questions about whether or not a student has (1) been suspended, disciplined, or put on probation at school, and (2) charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor or a felony.

Parents, if your student ever does something while in high school that would constitute a need to check “Yes” for either of those questions when they apply to college, please read this past post of mine (maybe bookmark it now, just in case).

And high school counselors, since you’ll also be asked these questions about your applicants, check out Patrick O’Connor’s excellent advice here on how to handle these situations.