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'Getting College Ready' tips for teens

Published on: April 01, 2010

Teen preparing for collegeGetting School Ready, a column that typically focuses on a child's readiness for kindergarten and grade school, is taking a leap this month. We're going to zip right past the early years and land squarely at the university door.

Let's call it Getting College Ready.

The irony is, getting ready for kindergarten and getting ready for college aren't so different. To prepare for both, students often compete for spots, must adjust to "leaving the nest," and benefit by honing their social, emotional and academic skills.

The college chase, however, presents its own unique pressures. Many of today's parents, accustomed to micromanaging each stage of their children's development, take the college search process to new, implausible levels. The fall-out? Unnecessary strain and anxiety, say educators and counselors.

Some families begin desperately seeking Stanford -- or Yale or Harvard -- ultra early. The "right" preschool, the thinking goes, begets the right grade school, which paves the path to the better college. The same narrow perspective colors the choices for a child's activities, lessons, sports and community service.

Dr. Laura Kastner calls it "hothouse parenting." Kastner, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the University of Washington, says parents often 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 college at the grade school level 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.

What's in a name?
Somehow, parents -- and their kids, too -- have bought into the myth that attending a name-brand 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 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 a family who attempts 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 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:

1. Focus on the child's development, not the resume.

2. Recognize that honors courses, GPA and SATs are important, but so are intellectual curiosity, commitment to causes, personal virtues and extracurricular activities.

3. Place priority on helping your child make good and healthy choices, not just grades.

4. Help your child identify his or her talents, interest and passions. People succeed when they do what they excel at.

5. Help optimize your child's development by spending quality and quantity time with your child.

6. 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, Dannenhold says. "To me, this process is a lot of fun. Families should realize it's an opportunity. 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 writes frequently on education issues for
ParentMap. Learn more about Linda and her book, Beyond Smart, at

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