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How to parent a teen through college admissions without freak-outs, bribes or losing your mind

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Why are we all reading about the college admissions scandal? It DOES have some pretty titillating components --- celebrities, piles of money, clandestine phone calls, staged photos and, um, SAT scores (hmmm, one of these things is not like the others). College admissions aren’t the sexiest subject, but they tap into the deep-in-the-DNA desire to make everything work for our kids.

Oh we’re all horrified by the outrageous behavior in this scandal and even feeling a bit smug that we didn’t bribe anyone to get our kids into college. But if we’re honest, I think every parent recognizes a bit of themselves in those desperate parents who just want a smooth ride for their beloved offspring.

We want our kids to get all the prizes, win the elections, nail the auditions, be invited to the group and the parties. And when it comes to college admissions, many parents feel their kids acceptance letters are a reflection on their own parenting. Oh, we know, WE KNOW, it’s not good for our kids to have everything go their way. But it doesn’t stop us from wishing for it.

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If we’re REALLY honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we want everything for our kids not just because we want our children to be happy; we want those things because they make us look good. I get it. I’m seeing new wrinkles on my face every day, I need SOMETHING that makes me look good. But it’s not fair to put that pressure on my kids.

I’m seeing younger and younger kids worried about getting into the right college. When my oldest was in 9th grade most of his friends were only vaguely aware that their grades counted and they would need to take a standardized test in the distant future. Now that my daughter is in 9th grade her friends all own a stack of ACT and SAT prep books and at the end of each quarter you see kids panicking that one score or one grade may exclude them from the college of their dreams.

And we wonder why we’re experiencing an anxiety epidemic.

TRUTH—we all need to just CHILL.

Our kids don’t need to go to a top college. Our kids don’t even need to go to college.

Now that we’ve reached the height of college admissions frenzy (please tell me it isn’t going to get worse!), let’s acknowledge something we all know—college is not the end-all, get-all epitome of human experience. A degree does NOT guarantee success, relationships or happiness. Raise your hand if you know someone with a master’s degree who makes their living with the knowledge they gained in one coding class? Raise your hand if you know someone making just as much money as the MBA dude with a single coding class they took at a community college?

We’re living in a time when there are so many ways to succeed. We can’t even imagine the careers of the future and how humans will acquire knowledge (I’m so intrigued by all the online courses I’m seeing these days).

Why should you listen to me? Well, I’ve navigated four kids through college admissions. I’ve got a kid at Harvard Law, one in JD/MBA school, another pre-med; three kids with perfect ACT scores, three National Merit Scholars and more AP awards that I can count. And we’ve made SO MANY MISTAKES with college admissions. I can save you several headaches. Let’s go through the five steps of remaining chill while navigating your teen through college admissions:

  1. THIS IS YOUR KIDS’ DECISION. In watching the Singer scandal I think we all feel compassion for the innocent kids involved. They didn’t know their parents were paying bribes or having ringers take tests in their name. Most of us would never stoop that low, but we might try to have undue influence over where our kids go to school. When my oldest son was making application decisions, I wanted him to attend the school with the best scholarship package and he wanted to go somewhere else. A friend gave me invaluable advice, “This MUST be his decision. He has to live in the city, sit in the classes, spend his days with the professors and the other students. Let him OWN the decision. Otherwise he might be tempted to blame you on the hard days.”
  2. THE COLLEGE THEY ATTEND DOESN’T MATTER. Oh, I know we have emotional attachments to certain schools, but we all know every experience relies on what you make of it. Every school offers more opportunities than any student can reasonably take advantage of. Smaller schools are better for some, larger schools ignite the talents of other kids. Yes, we hear about success stories coming out of Stanford and MIT but just as many come from schools you’ve never heard of. I have so many amazing friends who teach at community and junior colleges. They love those kids up, teach them everything they know and help them graduate without any debt.
  3. STUFF WILL GO WRONG. I can guarantee you this—in the frenzy of college applications something will go wrong. And it will be OK. With all the testing, signatures, applications, essays, transcripts and fees, something is going to get lost or delayed. Don’t beat yourself up. You’ll never mess up as badly as I have and we’re still OK. Ready for a couple disaster stories? STORY #1: The summer before his senior year I told my son I’d registered him for the September 20th ACT test. All summer long in between working and playing, I nagged him to pull out his ACT prep and study for the test. And HE DID. In the last few weeks before the test he was on fire—flying through practice tests, quizzing with his friends, trying to get extra sleep. The night before the test he asked if I could print out his admission ticket for the test. When I checked my computer, I found I’d never actually registered him. Um. Yeah. Not my finest moment. STORY #2: My third son followed a specific class schedule from 7th grade on in order to earn a certain scholarship. He filled out all the applications but missed one signature on one page. Scholarship GONE. STORY #3: My son spent weeks filling out an application to a school where we knew he’d be accepted and hoped for a prestigious scholarship. He was the Student Body President, perfect ACT, 3.9 GPA, 12 AP classes, etc. He finished all the paperwork, six essays, teacher recommendations, interviews and submitted the application. But his updated transcript (he’d sent in one from the previous semester) arrived one day late. Not only did he lose any chance for a scholarship, he wasn’t even admitted. Yeah, that was FUN. I have more stories—so many more—but this is getting long. Moral of the story-- it’s all OK! You’re going to make college application mistakes, but you can feel a little bit smug that you’ll never mess up as much as we have at our house.
  4. TOO MUCH PREP CAN BACKFIRE. Right before my son graduated from high school, he showed me a group chat with many of the high achievers at his school. I was surprised to see comment after comment saying, “I hate what my parents have done to my high school years. I’ve obeyed long enough. When I get to college I am getting drunk, sleeping in and eating Doritos.” One student after another added their agreement. These are kids whose parents managed their high school testing, scheduled activities that look great on applications (REAL rowing teams), paid for tutors and hired consultants to walk their kids through the application process. A year later, many of these kids joined the ranks of FRESHMAN YEAR DROPOUTS. When a teen is truly motivated, tutors and consultants are a wise investment. But parents should beware living out their own ambitions through their children.
  5. THERE ARE ALWAYS OTHER OPPORTUNITIES. Here’s the truth, even if your teen does drop out after a semester, take a gap year that turns into three or simply attends a school you consider subpar, there will be other opportunities. As a society we’ve concentrated so much pressure into a narrow segment of life when we all know perfectly well there are ten thousand, ten million, probably ten billion paths to success. Our friend Jessi just took off to India for a year. His very wise father (who also happens to be the dean of a medical school) told him he’d be a much better doctor if he saw a little more of the world. Life is short, but it’s also long. Let’s just all chill out a bit and let our kids grow into their own dreams.

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