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College Prep Shouldn't Be College Madness

College Prep Shouldn’t Be College Madness

By Mir Kamin

There’s an article going around right now—which I am not going to link to, because my goal here isn’t to make fun of another writer, not really—about how to plan out your child’s trajectory towards an excellent college. The author is described as someone whose children were accepted to “competitive 4-year schools,” and is therefore assumed to be an expert on how to make it happen for your own children. (These articles come and go and are a natural part of the parenting news cycle, I know.)

Her timeline starts in 8th grade. Let me repeat that: Her timeline starts in 8th grade. First order of business? Make a cross-country trip to see as many different kinds of schools in as many areas as possible, the summer before beginning high school. This isn’t a terrible idea, but I don’t love her timing (I think it’s way too early), and I also don’t like the assumption that everyone has the time and the money to do such a thing, because they don’t.

Before going any further, I will admit that I am 100% biased here by various factors, some of which I think may be universal (my son was 12 when he finished 8th grade, at which time I’m pretty sure his future career goals included “becoming a Pokemon trainer”), and others which are highly specific and less so (my daughter finished 8th grade in failing health and promptly went into the hospital for four months). College was the last thing on my family’s mind in 8th grade.

Fast forward to now: My daughter is in the second half of her senior year, happily committed to her future college. She did all of the legwork herself (and I’ll get to more on that in a minute), located and secured her own scholarships, and determined this was the right school for her. We happen to agree. In case it matters (and I’m not sure it does; again, more on that in a minute), this is a small, well-regarded but not cutthroat school, and her chosen department is well-known and respected in relevant circles. My son is in the second half of his junior year and we are just beginning to ramp up college-related matters with him. He’s a very different kid than his sister and our approach with him is different. Both of my children are excellent students and profoundly gifted (mentioning that not to be a braggy jerkface, but to clarify that this is not the sour grapes of a parent whose kids would be unable to get into or thrive at a “top school”). This is my vantage point when reading and assessing the piece on planning out your children’s college approach. And here are my objections, in no particular order.

One size does not fit all. Anyone who tries to tell you there is one singular way to prepare a child for college is suspect, in my eyes. The piece in question, here, is about preparing your kids to get into a “good” school. I could write an entire novel about what constitutes a “good” school and whether top-tier schools are worth the angst. The reality is that some kids will thrive in a high-pressure, elite environment, and some kids will not; I promise that if you, the parent, try to tell your child that is the only path to success, someone’s going to end up very unhappy. I know kids who will settle for nothing less than “the best,” and some of them really will thrive, and some of them will end up imploding, but do you know what they all have in common? They are self-motivated. Those kids who actually make it at Harvard and Yale did not have their mommies and daddies micromanaging them. If you’re dragging your kid along this path, re-evaluate who really wants to get into that college, here.

I am absolutely a proponent of parents being involved as teens figure out their college/life path. Part of that involvement must involve an honest assessment of what will truly work for your child’s achievement and overall wellness.

There’s a difference between pressure and motivation. Start the college process too early and many kids are going to end up feeling panicked and burnt out long before they write their first applications. Kids who can tolerate and even thrive under a targeted 5-year plan towards greatness (or whatever) will, again, be self-motivated. Our job as parents is to motivate, not to set up a high standard and demand it be met. Don’t worry—most kids will put plenty of pressure on themselves, and their peers will also create pressure, and the last thing they need from you is more of it. I see my primary job in this stage of life to assure my kids that they will figure it out, and also that mistakes are simply detours. I’m here to tell them that this is exciting and they can handle whatever comes next. My daughter went through a brief but panicked “but what if I pick the wrong school??” stage. My response? “What if you do? So what? You’ll learn, figure it out, and transfer someplace else. No biggie.”

Some kids need help, some kids need you to back off. My daughter is the sort of kid who had to do this completely on her own to figure it out. I stood way back (and no, that wasn’t easy for me!) and let her do her thing. When she asked to visit schools, we went. When she needed application fees, I paid them. I have never steered her towards a testing date or school activity or job; she knows what she wants and goes for it. I let her do her thing and we couldn’t be more thrilled or prouder with the result: she will be ready to launch and her future is bright. On the other hand, my son is the sort of kid who needs a little more… prodding. Not start-your-college-planning-in-8th-grade sort of prodding, mind you, but he’s not great with change. So we do a little more with him, but do our best to keep it light. “Are there any other school activities you think you might like? How about you just go once, and see if you like it.” “Oh, hey, what about this summer program on a college campus? That could be neat, plus it’ll give you an idea of what it’s like to live in a dorm.” “Hey, have you thought about dual-enrolling next year? Let’s talk about some of the pros and cons of that.” We don’t force or demand or make it a big deal, but our approach is different because he needs a little more intervention.

Just because they can doesn’t mean they should. So-called top-tier schools are not for everyone, for all of the reasons you read about (they’re expensive, many of them have environments which are less than supportive, grade inflation/cheating/other issues tend to run rampant), and also because your child isn’t just picking a school, they’re picking a life for the next few years. I happen to know that there’s a critical tipping point of pressure for both my kids; they thrive under challenge, love being amongst similarly brainy peers, but can fall apart if they feel like “the dumbest one in the room.” We have had (and will continue to have, with my son) a lot of discussions about how to balance finding an environment of challenge without pushing yourself to the brink. For my daughter, the solution was surprisingly simple: at her “pretty good” college she enrolled in the Honors Program, which assures she’s amongst the best/brightest without having to pick a school where “everyone is the best.” For my son, who is already considering a more competitive school, if he ends up going there we would caution against doing the Honors option because he’d be challenged enough without it.

Don’t forget that sometimes the big fish in the regular pond stands out better than the average fish in the exceptional pond, too. Just sayin’.

College is not forever. Parents, please, let’s stop acting like this is a life-or-death decision. Something like 70% of college students will change their declared major at least once, and a third of college students will transfer schools altogether before completing their degree. This is an important life choice, yes, but it’s not set in stone. And the reality is that the more we can assure our kids they can handle it, no choice is “wrong,” and it’s up to them to choose to succeed, the greater the chances that they’ll land exactly where they belong and thrive once they’re there.

The bottom line: There is no single timetable or formula for preparing kids for college success, nor does it hinge on a prescribed trajectory or a specific school. Maybe I’m nuts, but I think the best parental support we can offer hinges on being realistic about what our kids need, sensitive to their wants and fears, and a willingness to step back and let them find their own way.

Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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Comments

  • Jodie

    We listened to Gladwell’s David & Goliath recently.  It had a pretty compelling view on ‘good’ schools and how the predict success.  It definitely changed my frame of mind on the topic.  Summarized here:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/malcolm-gladwells-david-and-goliath-2013-10

    • Yes! That’s exactly right. I was accepted to Stanford to do my PhD, a million years ago, precisely because I was a “standout fish” at my pretty-good-but-not-top-tier undergrad institution. And then… I dropped out with my Masters, because I found it fairly demoralizing to go from being among the smartest to being among the dumbest. (I am not complaining or saying it was the wrong move for me; indeed, I think it was a very important life lesson to understand that hanging your hat on “being the best” was an unhealthy goal, at least for me.)

  • S

    Your piece was right on. I switched fields in graduate school, so it’s not all or nothing. I went to public and private instiutions pros and cons with both. One of my roommates struggled because she really did not fit in in undergrad. 

    Good luck to your daughter. 
    S

  • Traci

    I would say for kids who are on the edge academically or who have other life obstacles (like coming from a low income household) that might make them think college isn’t an option, going to several different options (community college, tech school, and 4 year) in 8th/9th grade can be a good way to plant the seed of possibility. This is a good way to jump start personal motivation in kids at a point in life where they can set themselves up for success. Waiting too long with a teen who is struggling will likely result in them checking out completely as it feels impossible to turn yourself around so late in the game. But the point at that age is showing possibilities and showing pathways so that they can enter highschool with an understanding of what can and must be done. They don’t need to know what they want to do, but they need to know that they need at least a B average to have options. They need to know that being involved is important. Mostly, they need to know that high school is not the ending, but the stepping off point for the beginning of their lives.

    • These are great points, Traci, though I guess my quibble is that these “Prepare Your Kids For College” timelines invariably seem to be written by upper-middle-class folks whose kids are likely to do just fine, regardless. I know our high school has a lot of support for college readiness and option-exploration, and they take the 9th graders on a nearby campus visit day for exactly the reasons you describe. But that’s a far cry from “make a week-long cross-country trip to a dozen schools as an 8th grader.”

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  • momof 12thgradetwins

    I totally agree about doing what your child needs you to do (not what parental angst prods you to do) My kids seemed unable to wrap their minds around the whole thing. Having them visit a few schools that were an easy drive or close by, was really helpful. For them, sitting in on the actual classes was most important. They got nothing from tours and group open houses. After the visits (Jr. year, winter) they were able to compare and contrast and make the college process seem more real.