Don’t let your parents do it all for you

(Paraphrased) question I got from a parent on the phone yesterday:

"My
son has an interest in medicine.  So I was thinking of sending him to
stay with family in India this summer, and he could do some volunteer
work there at a local medical clinic where our family has connections.  I
think there would be real value for him to experience a place where not
everyone has the advantages that he has, where he has to take the bus to
work and spend his days with people who don't have access to good
medical care.  How would the colleges view that?"

My (paraphrased)
answer:

"Anything your son does where he's helping other people is
a good thing.  And having his eyes opened to less fortunate populations is something I would never tell you not to encourage.  But if
he's really interested in being a doctor and making a difference, why
not let him seek out and secure those kinds of opportunities himself? 
Why are you doing it all for him?" 

Part of the value of taking on
anything in high school is the initiative you have to show to get
involved.  If your parents set everything up for you and all you have to do is show
up and do what's ask of you, you'll miss out on a lot of the learning you could have done.

This is not a parent’s job

I did a seminar for our Collegewise parents on Saturday called "College Admissions Support for Parents."  And I knew that one of the recommendations I was going to make might surprise them.

Accept that it is not your job to make all your student's college dreams come true. 

I know that might sound harsh, but fast forward in time for a second.  Imagine that five years from now, your daughter has a job interview after college and doesn't get hired.  It's a job she really wanted, too, and she's disappointed.  Sure, you'd likely be disappointed for her.  But would it be your job to march down to the office and complain to the boss that she should change her mind and hire your kid?

Ten years from now, if your son and his (now future) wife put an offer in for a house from they are outbid by another couple, will you make it your job to intercede and demand that his offer be accepted because he's such a good son?

Fifteen years from now, if your daughter were vying for a promotion at work, will you make it your job to swoop in, talk to her boss, ask what would improve her candidacy, and coach her through the interview process?

No reasonable parent would expect to control those situations for your kids.  At some point, your kids are out of your nest and in the real world.  You'll always be able to support and encourage them, but you can't control every outcome in your kids' adult lives. 

So why should a parent be expected to control the outcomes of the college admissions process?

Applying to college is a student's transition into life as an adult.  This is hard for a lot of good parents to face, but you will make it easier on yourself and your kids if you recognize what your job is not.

It is not your job to get your kid into the school he wants to attend; you can't make Yale say, "Yes."  It is not your job to protect your kids from the disappointment of college rejection.  You don't get to make admissions decisions any more than you will get to decide whether or not your kids get promoted at work when they're older.  No amount of parental love can control the outcomes of college admissions.  And the more you try to control it, the more likely you are to experience stress, frustration and even alienation from your kids who may feel like you don't trust them to do this themselves. 

So what is a parent's job during the college admissions process?

Cheer your kids on.  Encourage them.  Support their efforts.  Let them know that you'll be proud of them no matter which college they attend as long as they try and give it their best.  Be a sounding board.  Help them seek out good information and advice.  Celebrate their efforts independent of their achievements. 

Those are all things you can and should do.  They'll help your kids have more enjoyable and successful college application processes.  And they'll help you worry a little less knowing that you're doing your job well.

 

“I heard that…” = unsubstantiated rumor

Most statements that begin with “I heard that…” are suspect.

When I was in 7th grade, a student named Jano wasn’t at school one morning.  First people started saying, “I heard that Jano got hit by a car on his bike this morning.”  By lunch, it was, “I heard that after Jano got hit, he was gushing blood from his head while lying in the street.”  By the time I got to 7th period PE, it was, “I heard that Jano died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

The next day, Jano was back at school.  Not dead.  Not bleeding.  Not even hurt.  I’m not even sure that he owned a bike.

When you know your source is credible, you automatically cite it because you want your audience to believe you.  So you lead with, “My stockbroker told me…” or, “My personal trainer showed me…” or, “I spoke with the head chef and she recommended…”

But “I heard that…” always means that you either don’t have a source, or you have an unproven source and don’t want to look stupid by citing him or her.

That’s why most college admissions questions I get from audiences at seminars that begin with “I heard that…” are usually followed by something ranging from partially inaccurate to absolutely ridiculous.

The “I heard that-s…” are usually citing a neighbor, or a fellow parent, or an uncle.  They’re almost never getting their information from a college admissions expert of any kind.

Nobody who got their information from a high school counselor or an admissions officer or a knowledgeable private counselor starts a question with, “I heard that…”  They cite the source.

I’m not saying that the college admissions process is so complicated and steeped in secrecy that it’s understood by only a select few; anyone can learn more about it if you take the time.

But you still shouldn’t take advice from, or make decisions based on the stories of, other people who are just sharing unsubstantiated rumors rather than real knowledge.

Seek out good sources of advice and information.  Read college guidebooks.  Visit colleges’ websites.  Go to college fairs.  Talk with admissions officers.  Meet with your high school counselor.  Read this blog and others you find helpful.  Talk to people you trust who really know what they’re doing.

But whenever someone gives you college admissions information that starts with, “I heard…,” ask them to cite the source before you make any changes to your college planning.

More on parents (not) helping with college essays

I got a few emails from parents in response to my post where I advised that they not get involved helping their kids with college essays.  Most completely agreed with me, but there were a few who swore that they helped their kids successfully (and that the acceptance letters from Princeton and Yale were proof that it worked). 

I wasn't suggesting that no parent has the knowledge or ability to help your own kid with college essays.  I was saying that it's impossible for a parent to be a completely objective reader when the subject matter is your own son or daughter.  I was saying kids are inclined to resent their parents' involvement much like they resent you telling them what not to wear or whom to date.  I was saying that it's too much pressure, for you and for your student.

The American Medical Association's Code of Medical ethics advises against doctors treating their own children for similar reasons.

"Professional objectivity may be compromised when an immediate family member or the physician is the patient; the physician’s personal feelings may unduly influence his or her professional medical judgment, thereby interfering with the care being delivered…If tensions develop in a physician’s professional relationship with a family member, perhaps as a result of a negative medical outcome, such difficulties may be carried over into the family member’s personal relationship with the physician."

I think kids should get help with their college essays.  All good writers get feedback, and re-writing is part of good writing.  Kids can ask their English teacher, counselor, or even a good friend who knows them well and will call them out for saying things like, "My trip to Europe afforded me a plethora of opportunities to broaden my cultural horizons."

But it when it comes to parents helping, it really will take pressure off if you follow my (and the AMA's) lead here.

How parents can help kids with college essays

I did a seminar about college essays at an admissions event today.  And I gave parents the advice I've given for my entire career as a college counselor about how parents can best help their kids with college essays. 

Don't get involved.  Stay away.  In fact, run the other direction. 

Parents are the worst judges of their own kids' college essays.  You are not impartial observers.  You love your kids too much, and you are way too close to the subject matter to advise your son or daughter what and how to write in their college essays.

Most kids resent their parents' involvement in the college essay anyway.  And the colleges can always tell when you got too involved.  Kids think and write differently than parents do, and you'd be surprised how obvious is it to the trained reader when too many of the ideas or the words came from Mom or Dad. 

I know what some of you are thinking.  Some of you are thinking I'm wrong.  Every time I give this advice to a crowd, there's one parent who scowls at me.  It's inevitably a parent who inserts herself into everything her kid is doing.  It's the parent who's sure that she's the exception to the rule. 

She's not.  And neither are you. 

So preserve your family relationship and the purity of the essays. 
Stay out of them.  Help with other things like planning college visits,
and filling out financial aid forms and cheering your kids on
throughout the process.  But when it comes to college essays, remove
yourself from the process.  Your kids and the colleges will thank you for it.

Savoring moments of laughter in the college search

From yesterday's "The Choice" blog:

"As a parent, it’s so easy to get sucked into what has been described
as a gut-wrenching, grueling, ridiculous, harrowing (I could go on and
on) process. When I bumped into a friend at the bagel store last week
whose son had just decided where he’ll be going to college next year,
she looked at me and said, 'You are in for the worst time between now
and next year.'”

I grabbed my bagels, got in my car and thought about what she said.
What could be so bad? Is anyone sick? Going to jail? Nope. I continued
on with my day."


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.