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Finding a fit: Rethinking the college chase

Published on: April 22, 2011

Helping your teen pick a collegeBy now, most high school seniors know where they’re going to college next year. They are winding up a long, arduous process, which in some homes, begins practically at birth.

That’s because the ramped-up, increasingly aggressive college-prep process has reached new, stunning heights.

There’s that New York parent who sued her daughter’s preschool for jeopardizing the child’s chances of getting into a top private school, which, she claims, will affect her ability to make it into the Ivy League.

There’s Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, who demands pure brilliance from her two daughters and will settle for no less.

There’s Chua’s daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, who was recently accepted by Harvard and Yale, giving credence to Chua’s über-hovering parenting style.

And then there’s the film Race to Nowhere, currently making the rounds in schools nationwide, that highlights stories of young students pushed to the brink by teachers, families and schools.

The college chase has become so embedded in the psyches of American parents that even those critiquing other parents for their hypercompetitive behavior are themselves participants.

Writer Katie Roiphe, in a recent Slate article, talks about getting children into private elementary schools: “The admissions process is, for many, only the beginning . . . there is perhaps the tiniest bit of cosmic confusion over who exactly is attending the school: the children who just go there, or the parents who revel and revere and bask in it.”

Not to be outdone, Roiphe describes her own 18-month-old’s private school interview, where he (unfortunately?) called all fruits “apples.”

The ‘right path’
When families begin Desperately Seeking Stanford ultra-early, the entire process — from preschool to precollege — puts kids through unnecessary strain and anxiety, say educators and counselors.

The “right” preschool, the thinking goes, begets the right grade school, which paves the path to the superior college. The same narrow perspective colors the choices for a child’s activities, lessons, sports and community service.

Dr. Laura Kastner calls this approach “hothouse parenting.” Kastner, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the University of Washington, says parents worry about this passage of their child’s life too soon.

“There are parents who feel their child should be the top of the top in every category. For them, parenting has become a competitive sport,” she says. When hearing a friend describe her child’s Spanish lessons, Little League practice, violin recital and tutoring sessions, a parent might think, “Maybe I’m a slacker if I don’t have my child in those things,” says Kastner, whose book, The Launching Years, offers strategies for parenting college-bound seniors.

But thinking about college when kids are still in grade school (or earlier!) can be counterproductive, says Bob Dannenhold, an independent college counselor in Seattle. “It’s an exercise in futility. You don’t know who or what these kids are,” he contends. “You want to let them grow into their strengths.”

Finding the right college for your teenWhat’s in a name?
Somehow, parents — their kids, too — have bought into the myth that attending a brand-name college equals success in life.

That’s just plain wrong, says Kastner, who points to studies showing there’s no proven economic advantage to attending a top-ranked school. What’s more, high school valedictorians don’t necessarily go on to achieve at the top levels in careers, she notes. “There’s no such thing as the ‘best school.’ Kids should be looking at what the best match is for them.”

If parents reassure their child that there’s a college for everyone, and that “best fit” matters more than prestige, much of the anxiety surrounding college entry will disappear, contends Joan Rynearson, founder of College Advisory Service on Bainbridge Island.

Every so often, Rynearson says, she comes across parents who attempt to live out their own dreams through their child. “I had one angry young man say to his father, ‘Why don’t you go to college? In Mozambique!’”

Teens pushed too hard down one path are inclined to head off in the opposite direction, Rynearson warns. She likens guiding a teen to riding a horse. “You can nudge them in one direction or another, but if you treat them harshly or try to pull them up short, you’ll find yourself tossed by the wayside.”

Is there a way to handle the “getting college ready” process without upping family stress levels?

Kastner recommends that parents approach this transition as another life stage for growth and development. “Instead of focusing on the best college, think ‘best fit’ — and ‘best next step for optimizing development,’” she says. She also suggests that parents:

  • Focus on the child's development, not the résumé.

  • Recognize that honors courses, GPA and SATs are important, but so are intellectual curiosity, commitment to causes, personal virtues and extracurricular activities.
  • Place priority on helping your child make good and healthy choices, not just grades.
  • Help your child identify his or her talents, interests and passions. People succeed when they do what they excel at.
  • Help optimize your child’s development by spending large quantities of quality time with your child.
  • Realize the transition to adulthood and maturity takes many years, and there are as many pathways as there are adolescents.

Above all, keep a healthy perspective, says Dannenhold. “Look at your kids for who they are and help them comprehend how they can use their strengths to be happy, healthy human beings.”

Linda Morgan is the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Academic Potential.

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