My mother, a social worker, once asked a middle school guidance counselor what separated the kids who did well from the kids who didn't.
"Oh, that's easy," she replied. "The parents have their own lives."
It's a line that parents would do well to remember as a new wave of high school juniors -- and sophomores, and increasingly freshman -- enter the college admissions frenzy. Journalist David Marcus recently wrote a wonderful piece on The Choice, the college blog of The New York Times, where he explained coming to terms with the fact that his kid wasn't an academic superstar and wouldn't be going to the same storied institution he had attended. And that that was OK, even great. His column prompted this comment from a reader: "There is nothing wrong with expecting your kid to get all A's, take honors and AP courses, top scores on SAT, and get into a top school. There is nothing wrong with being disappointed if your kid fails to accomplish these goals. It is your failure as a parent, too."
Well, actually, there is something very wrong with having those expectations when they're detached from your kid's interests, talents and passions -- and, frankly, something really messed up about branding people "failures" if their kids don't get into elite schools.
Stop Running the Admissions Horse Race
My advice to parents would be to stop looking at your kid and worrying about why he doesn't seem interested in getting into a top school. Instead, look in the mirror and worry about why you do care so much. As I've written in dozens of previous articles, there's overwhelming evidence that going to an elite college doesn't provide nearly as great a benefit as many people think it does. For instance, one study found that students accepted into elite schools who attended less selective schools ended up earning the same amount of money afterward as those who had gone to those higher-ranked institutions. What will determine your kid's success in life is his ability and determination, not his pedigree.
And if your kid isn't academically talented and driven, no $50,000-a-year college will turn him into a superstar.
So here's an idea: Instead of telling your kid to study one of those awful SAT prep guides, unplug the xBox and tell him to read a book. Any book. I don't care if it's Twilight or Choose Your Own Adventure, it will improve his vocabulary and reading comprehension skills, and it just might help him discover what interests him. The real tragedy of the college admissions competition is that it has distorted what should be a youthful desire for knowledge into a narcissistic horse race that has more to do with bragging at cocktail parties than education.
Oh, and follow that guidance counselor's advice and get a life. Or at least a second job so that your kid won't have to take out student loans.
Zac Bissonnette'sDebt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parentswas called the "best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process" by The Washington Post.