College Prep Shouldn’t Be College Madness
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.