As colleges get ready to tell their applicants their fate, kids and parents become increasingly anxious, which makes it a good time to talk about the meaning of college admissions and how much they really matter.
First of all, I want to say that no one should take the college admissions process to seriously. While I know that kids and parents have high hope and want to get into a certain school or program and that the work your teen has done over the last 2 to 5 years has been geared for this monumental decision, please remember that being admitted or not getting into a certain college is NOT a sign of anyone’s actual personal worth, ability, or promise to succeed.
It’s important to keep in mind that colleges have all sorts of demographics concerns and that they’re also engaged in sort of a “horse trading” process (e.g. I’ll give you your applicant, if you’ll give me mind), and have all kinds of other sorts of considerations in mind when they’re making their decisions. Yes, colleges are making decisions about your teen’s life, but you they and you as parent chooses to take that decision (good or bad) is entirely up to you. There is no college acceptance that will make or break your child’s future. Only you, dear student, can do that.
And I also do want to say that for all the hundreds of families I’ve worked with for a really long time, not a single one ever asked me where I went to college before deciding to put trust and faith into me and my judgment to help them and their kids. Just stop to think about how often you ask or care where someone went to college before you decide that he or she might become your friend (or enemy) or whether a therapist, teacher, or coach is qualified to work with your child based on his or her college acceptance. How often do people ask you what college you went to on a daily basis?
Now there are some exceptions; instances in life where your undergraduate college does matter, so I thought I should mention them. If your child wants to attend Ivy League law school, medical school or graduate school, then he or she in most cases needed to have attended an Ivy League, Military Academy, or a few other select schools for a chance to get in. If your child is seriously thinking about making a career out of Academia, especially in the elite schools, then where your child goes for his or her undergraduate degree does matter. But, beyond that, it doesn’t matter all that much.
So what is the big deal with college admission? Honestly, not that much. My own thought is that as college has become [sadly] less and less an academic experience and more a social and/or life experience. Where a student goes to college has taken on a greater importance, but rather a different importance— one that’s not so linked to academic importance as it is to a general importance. As we talk more and more about the “fit” between a student and the school, we talk less and less about the academic learning.
When I am advising a student about college applications, I ask the student to prepare a list of 8 to 15 priorities for the school. And to accomplish that task, I require the student to think academically. Now I certainly know that most kids do not, in the end, major in the subject they think they will major in when they start college, but looking carefully into the departments of a college or university is an important part of understanding what the college/university offers. Sometimes, kids are sure that their number one choice is perfect—except that it doesn’t offer much in terms of what he or she wants to study.
Once a student has come up with her/his priorities and has the list approved by their parents, it’s time to begin researching on how the academics work at various schools. If you are awaiting decisions now, this should have already happened; if it didn’t happen, once the acceptances are in, it should happen. So often kids choose schools based on coolness, reputation, location, social factors while never even thinking twice about distribution requirements, what majors are offered at the school, or how big a department is in a given school. I won’t go into all the reasons why these questions are so important, I’ll just say that when kids get to college, if they end up having to take courses that don’t interest them, they tend not to put in their best effort and maybe not even go to the classes. This is not a good start to one’s college career.
As the letter and packets begin to arrive at home and in your son or daughter’s email, I urge you to require your child to have a thorough look at each school’s actual academic plan. Visiting the campus is useful, but not more useful than having some idea whether a math and/or science class is required in freshman year or what the school’s language requirement might be. Does the college have a specific curriculum that all students must follow- only your student doesn’t really want that curriculum, despite the school being cool or located in a trendy place?
And, by the way, just want to remind that it is your child going to college, so the pronoun we is probably not a good one to be using. “We” aren’t choosing a college; the student is. However, if you, the parent, will be paying for it, you do have a say in what you will support and why. Be careful of objectifying your child as in, “We’re flying her to visit colleges.” No! She is going; you are accompanying your child for logistical reasons and perhaps to offer opinions and be a sounding board. Please ask your child hard questions before decisions are made. Please require that your child research the colleges he or she is interested in.
And remember, in the end, it is your child who is going to college, so it’s he or she that must make the decision that’s based on real and well-researched data. This is a perfect time for you to be the guiding parent, but not the directive parent, and to be the thoughtful parent, but not the overly-involved parent.
Lastly, please try to be calm about it all because although where your child goes may be life changing, it will not be in the ways you are likely thinking about it. Going to college, learning a lot, making what may be lifelong friends, perhaps meeting a potential spouse, the one professor who will inspire deeply—these things matter, but they are exactly the things where the name of the school isn’t that important. These are the ways in which your child’s college choice may be life changing, but not in ways you can really plan. There is some Fate at work here; since you can’t avoid it, consider embracing it.