Parents, it’s OK not to share

Parents at a dinner party would probably never ask you about:

1)  How much money you make.

2)  What your house is worth.

3)  What you paid in taxes this year.

4)  Sensitive medical issues.

5) Personal family problems.

So, why would it be acceptable to compare your kids' test scores, college lists, and admissions outcomes?

The next time a fellow parent tries to turn their student's college application process into a status competition, feel free to just say, "We're really excited for our daughter and will support whatever decision she makes. 

Some things are OK not to share.

Why not hire a tutor for your student’s BEST subject?

I've often recommended to our Collegewise parents that rather than hire tutors for their kids' weakest subject, why not hire one for their strongest?   Working to maximize a natural strength is always more rewarding than grinding through a weakness is.  And kids who spend all their time working to fix their academic flaws don't have the chance to dive in to the subjects that fascinate them.  They'll never know how far they could have gone with what they loved.  

According to this article in the New Yorker, that strategy of catering to strengths seemed to work out OK for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's parents: 


When he (Zuckerberg) was about eleven, his parents hired a computer tutor, a software developer named David Newman, who came to the house once a week to work with Mark.'He was a prodigy,' Newman told me. 'Sometimes it was tough to stay ahead of him.' (Newman lost track of Zuckerberg and was stunned when he learned during our interview that his former pupil had built Facebook.) Soon thereafter, Mark started taking a graduate computer course every Thursday night at nearby Mercy College. When his father dropped him off at the first class, the instructor looked at Edward and said, pointing to Mark, 'You can’t bring him to the classroom with you.' Edward told the instructor that his son was the student."

If your son or daughter resists the college search

Jay Mathews has a great way of helping parents relax.  He'll remind you that teens are going to do things like pick colleges based on how good looking the students are, and he'll make you feel OK that your son or daughter is doing the same.  And yet he somehow manages to say things like that and without sounding like he's belittling kids.

His piece today is for parents whose kids arent's as interested in thorougly evaluating colleges as Mom and Dad might want them to be. 

"I have collected enough stories about children dragging their feet on college applications to know that losing your temper rarely works. Patience is usually the best strategy. The junior who refuses to talk about college will have a different attitude when he is a senior and some of his friends have realized high school is not forever. Applications can be put together quickly. Some colleges still have spaces long after application deadlines — indeed, long after they have sent out acceptance letters." 


Thanksgiving…college style

If you're a high school student or the parent of one, Thanksgiving will be a lot different someday.

When kids are in high school and they see their families every day, Thanksgiving can seem like just another holiday.  But Turkey Day is a big deal for college kids.  It means heading home to fill up their tanks with family time.  They get a home-cooked meal and time with their siblings and the chance to regale everyone with their college stories about dorms, classes and friends.  They're thankful for their new lives at college and for the home lives that are always there for them.

Parents of college kids get to welcome them home and celebrate the family being together again.  They're reminded what it was like to have a full house before their college students moved out.  Sure, parents might get a little nostalgic for those pre-college days when the kids were still home.  But the truth is that while parents will be thankful to have everyone back together, they're also thankful to see for themselves that their kids have become happy college students who are also a little older and wiser.

And nobody ever begins a Thanksgiving toast with, "I'm thankful I/you attend an Ivy League school."  

If your family is about to enter or is in the throes of the college process, let Thanksgiving be the day that you don't think about the associated stresses.  Don't think about the SAT or the trigonometry grade that won't raise higher than a B.  Don't think about what's happening in the admissions offices and whether or not your essays could have been better.  Don't think about how disappointed you'll be if Duke says, "No." 

Instead, just think about what you're thankful for.  It'll remind you how little the SAT matters in the bigger scheme of things.  And imagine what Thanksgiving will be like one day no matter where you (or your kids) go to college.

Sometimes it’s best to just accept reality

It's often a waste of time to get upset about things you can't change. 

When your flight is delayed or you're stuck in bad traffic or it's raining on a day you wanted to go to the beach, that's the reality.  Getting upset won't change things for the better (and I admit that I often make that mistake).  The better job you can do of just accepting things you can't change, the better you'll feel and the less negative energy you'll waste. 

There are about 40 colleges in the country where admission is absurdly competitive.  The applicant pools are full of the most accomplished students in the world, and just about all of them get rejected. A lot of those rejected kids were just as qualified and worked just as hard as those who were admitted.  It's neither rational nor fair.  But it's the reality at those schools.  You can complain about it or lament your admissions misfortune, but that's not going to make you feel better.  And it's not going to improve your college outlook at all.  You might as well accept it.

I'm not saying you should abandon your dreams if you think Princeton is the school for you.  You can (and should) work as hard as you can to give yourself as many college options as possible. 

But once you accept the admissions reality you can't change, you can put your mental energy to better use.  You can learn as much as you can in your classes motivated by the fact that knowledge is always a good thing.  You can enjoy your time on the soccer team or in the school play or at your part-time job because you know you're getting something good out of it even if Harvard says, "No."  You won't take any rejections from highly selective colleges personally any more than you could blame yourself for not winning the lottery. 

And maybe you'll even reject the notion that those 40 schools are inherently better than others (they aren't, by the way).  You could take charge of your college process and find some other colleges that fit you well and that would be excited to have you join their class. 

Sometimes acknowledging the reality actually leaves you with a lot more options.

A prescription for over-scheduled kids

A lot of today's high school students are completely over-scheduled with absolutely no free time.  That's hazardous to their mental health as well as to their college admissions chances.

It's easy to spot a kid who's over-scheduled.  It's a teenager who doesn't have any life in her face.  She's tired and stressed out.  She spends all her time doing formal activities and meeting with tutors, making calculated choices based on what she thinks will help her get into college. 

If you ask her what she does for fun, she doesn't have an answer.  She doesn't feel confident about her ability to measure up to expectations–her parents', the colleges' or her own.  She spends a lot of time trying to fix her weaknesses, meeting with math tutors and doing test prep.  

If that sounds like you (or your teen), here are some suggestions to help you reclaim some time.

1.  Every day, reserve an hour of time that is just for you.

This should be a time you get to spend doing something that makes you happy.  And don't you dare use that time to study SAT vocabulary.  This is your time to read US Weekly, or play guitar with nobody watching, or listen to music, or play video games.  I don't care what it is.  Don't justify it to anybody.  Just do it.

2. Cut back on the time you spend trying to fix weaknesses. 

It is absurd to think that anyone including the colleges expects you to be great at everything.  If you're meeting with a guitar teacher because you're not very good at guitar but you really want to be, that's great.  But if you're doing yet another round of test-prep for the SAT because your first three tries aren't in Stanford's range, ditch your SAT tutor and pick up the guitar (or the video game or US Weekly).

3.  Don't measure everything by its potential value to colleges.

Your high school career should be about lots of things, and preparing for college is certainly one of them.  But it should also be about being a regular teenager.  Regularly do things that will in no way help you get into college.  Being productive is a good thing, but scheduling every second of your day trying to please colleges is just unreasonable.

4.  Sleep more.  

I'm serious.  Too many kids talk about how they're sleeping 5 or fewer hours a night.  No good.  You need to sleep to function well, to be happy and to enjoy your life.  If there's just no way you could sleep more and still get everything done, then you need to follow tip #2 above and tip #5 below.

5.  Quit any activities that you don't enjoy and/or don't really care about.

It's better (and less stressful) to do a few things that really matter to you than too many that don't.  If you don't look forward to doing one of your activities and/or it just doesn't mean much to you, quit.  If you're worried that quitting will make you look like, well, a quitter on your college applications, then don't list that activity at all.  Problem solved.   

Bonus suggestion:  If you read these tips and say, "I don't have time for free time and sleeping more," buy "How to Be a High School Superstar" and read pages 55-77 about "How to reduce your homework time by 75%."

“He’s seventeen. He’ll screw it up.”

At a high school college night last week, a parent approached me afterwards and said,

"I know I'm not supposed to be filling out my son's applications.  But he's seventeen.  He's procrastinating and leaving it all for the last minute.  I feel like this is just too important for me to let him screw it up." (A phrase referenced often in the book by the former dean of admissions from MIT, Marilee Jones, about how parents should approach the college application process.)

As much as I discourage parents from taking over their kids' college application process, I still understand why even the most well intentioned moms and dads sometimes can't stop themselves.

I understand why, after watching your kid grow up, and saving all those years for his college fund, you'd get nervous when you see him leaving those essays and applications unfinished with the deadlines creeping up.  And when you imagine him losing out on college options all because of seventeen year old procrastination or disorganization, it's hard not to jump in and protect him, and you, from that disappointment.  I get that. 

For those parents, I'd just offer two gentle reminders. 

1.  When your kids go to college, you really are going to have to let them take care of things, both important and unimportant, on their own.  The press writes articles about parents who don't let go then. This is the time to start preparing your kids for that independence.

2.  Taking over the college application process sends a pretty bad message to your kid.  It means you either don't trust him or don't believe he can get into college on his own.  I understand that when a kid plays 5 hours of video games instead of working on his college applications, he's not giving you a lot of reasons to trust him.  Still, the message will be received.

If you're worried that your teen isn't taking the college application process seriously enough, resist the urge to jump in and take it seriously for them.  Instead, be honest about your concerns.  Tell them how excited you are about their college future.  Let them know the efforts you've made to save for their college tuition, and the sacrifices you're willing to make to send them. 

I'm not suggesting you say those things to make your teen feel guilty.  I think a mature teen will appreciate how much emotional and financial investmenet you're willing to make in them. 

Then they might be a little more open to hearing your concerns about the looming deadlines and the lack of application action.

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:


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:


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