As I read one news report after another about the college admissions scandal, I can’t help but ask myself where we went wrong. How did we reach the point where parents bribe and cheat to get their kids into the “good” colleges? When did the “where” become more important than “why”—why go to college-- and “what”—what you do in college?
I think parents frequently place more importance on where their kids go to college than the kids do—or would if left to freely make a choice. It’s one thing to encourage your child to do her best, to aim high and dream big. But when did we start equating self-worth—both our own and our children’s-- with the name of the college(s) they’re accepted to?
Many kids feel overwhelming pressure to get into a top-tier college, even when it may not really suit their needs, interests or learning style. And there are hundreds and hundreds of small colleges that provide excellent education experiences and may better suit your child than a “name” school. When choices are limited on the basis of prestige, it’s by-and-large, the fault of us parents.
Too often, we parents have our own self-worth wrapped up in our kids’ achievement, thinking that if my child doesn’t get into an ivy league school, I must not have been a good enough parent. Your child is not you. His successes and failures are not yours to own. When we forget that, we can push too hard for success in superficial terms because, consciously or unconsciously, we think it reflects on us.
Other parents may try to live out their own unfulfilled dreams, for instance, pushing a child to attend Harvard because they wish they could have. Or we expect our children to follow in our footsteps and attend our own alma mater, stressing family tradition more than what’s appropriate for the student. And of course, there are bragging rights. What parent of a high school senior hasn’t been to a spring cocktail party where conversation turns to college acceptances--“good” schools often elicit congratulations and nods of approval while equally good but less prestigious names are greeted with a tepid “That’s nice”. Let’s admit it: there can be a bit of snobbery going on in all this college admissions stuff.
Most kids want to please their parents and parental projections can be insidious, especially at a time when our students are struggling to develop their own sense of identity. We have to remember that it’s going to be their college years, not ours. And if we want their college experience to be a good and successful one, we should encourage them to choose a school based on their interests, abilities, learning style and lifestyle, not purely on the prestige factor or where we want them to go.
Far more important to students’ success than the college’s ranking on competitive lists is how involved a student is after arriving. According to a 2014 Gallup-Purdue study of more than 30,000 college graduates, engagement on campus is a greater predictor of future job satisfaction and happiness than the status of the school. Students who engage in campus life, build relationships with professors, mentors and friends, and get involved in projects and extra-curricular activities are the ones who will succeed—in college and in life. That’s more likely to happen when the school choice is based on your child’s preferences and needs, not acceptance rates and perceived status.
I can’t help but wonder how the students feel who’ve just discovered their parents cheated to get them into college. They can no longer be proud of getting in even if they might have gotten in on their own merits. They’ve been deprived of the satisfaction that comes with achievement. When it comes to college applications, we should encourage, support, ask questions about preferences but remain in a consultant role. You can offer help with editing or proofreading essays, but don’t insist. Don’t nag about deadlines. And for heaven’s sake, don’t fill out the applications or write the essays yourself! High school seniors are young adults and the process (and results) should belong to them. Let them own it.
A graduate of Stanford University, Mary Waldmann and her husband Raymond raised three children who are now independent, well-adjusted and happy young adults. Before becoming a mother, she was a successful real estate broker, political consultant and public relations executive, and worked as a part-time communications consultant when her children were young. Mary is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Winning with Today's Media , Six-Word Lessons for Intentional Parenting, and Six-Word Lessons for Compelling Speeches.
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