Preparing for College

College Admissions Stress, Prestige, and Our Kids

The end-of-year holidays are stressful for me. I'm a big introvert, so I'm uncomfortable when forced out of my normal low profile, quiescent mode. I do most of my communication remotely, via Internet and telephone. Anyway, my point here is stress.

I was a high school sophomore in the early '60s. (Yeah, I'm older than dirt.) All those decades ago, my buddies and I didn't have even a small percentage of the apparent stress high schoolers have on them today. Who's to blame? Look in the mirror, Mom and Dad

Here's the problem, as I see it. As parents, we want our kids to have all the advantages we both had and never had. Some of us may tend to equate happiness and success with prestige. “Prestige" is the weasel word here. What is prestige, anyway? I wrote about a parent's potential perspective on prestige in my draft for America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and other Top Schools, although my editor saw fit to delete the following portion (appearing here for only the second time ever):

Maybe it's just human nature; we all want what we think is “the best" for ourselves and especially our kids. I couldn't talk about Ivy passion, though, without addressing, at least fleetingly, the issue of snob appeal (also known euphemistically as “cachet"). Some higher education observers believe that Ivy passion is an irrational pursuit of one-upmanship. They indignantly accuse anyone who aspires to the consensus “top" colleges as being an uppity snob who is seeking selfish social status. They point the finger at us parents and prophesy that we want our kids to go Ivy so that we can deviously drop The Name on unwitting party guests or anyone else who will listen.

Observe the care with which such drops can be made (putting many skilled bombardiers to shame). This particular gambit is know as “The 360-Degree Behind-the-Back Slam Dunk":

UNWITTING PARTY GUEST (boisterously): Hey, Pete! How ya been?

PETE (half-enthusiastically): Hey, Bob (shaking hands). Good, good. You?

UPG: Great. How are those two kids?

PETE: Super, thanks. Mary's working as an editor and Bill's still in college. What about your Sarah and Ben?

UPG: Well, Sarah's in her third year of college and Ben is a junior in high school.

PETE (sipping his drink): Where's Sarah going to college? [Heard faintly in the background, the imaginary voice of an excited sports announcer over a roaring crowd: “Jordan makes the steal at mid-court!"]

UPG (proudly): Slippery Rock.

PETE: What's her major? [“He leaps from the foul line!"]

UPG (proudly): Elementary Ed. How 'bout Bill? Where's he?

PETE (dryly): He's in electrical engineering at a small private university in New Jersey. [“He's turning around in mid-air!"]

UPG (knowingly smug, tossing back his remaining martini): Drew?

PETE (flatly): Princeton. [“Jordan slams it through BEHIND HIS HEAD!"]

UPG (quietly half-choking, with raised eyebrows): Oh. [“Incredible!! The crowd is going CRAZY!!"]

Well, in cases like this, the critics are right. Parents like this should come under fire. This is elitism at its worst. Believe it or not, I have seen parents behave this way.

The parental quest for a vicarious link to prestige can impose all kinds of stress on our kids. Ultimately, they can come to feel that if they don't get into the school that Mom or Dad wants, life will be a miserable failure. How bad is that?

Anyway, before I rant on about imposing too much pressure on our kids about what colleges they “need" to be considering and aspiring to (I did a lot of that here), let me just end with a word to the wise parent: Don't try to relive your life through your kids.

Guide them, yes, but don't see them as a vehicle for you to grab a brass (or, worse yet, gold) ring, if they aren't cut out to do so. That ring could become a shackle for them in later life.

What price slam dunk?

Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.