Preparing for College

Parental Prerogatives

In my line of work as an independent college admissions counselor, I deal a lot with parents. They fall into two main groups: (1) those who would be considered so-called “helicopter” parents (usually mothers), and (2) “the uninitiated,” those who know that the college process is a significant challenge but who also know that they don’t know much about it.

The most frequent type of parent I deal with is the Mom or Dad who is eager (many times anxious) for their son or daughter to get into the Ivy League or other “elite” college or university. Inside this demographic dwell an additional two types: (1) parents who know that their child is a contender for admission to one of these top schools, and (2) those who have no idea about how difficult (and random) the ultra-competitive college admissions process has become.

Accordingly, I would like to address both of these groups with some of my accumulated wisdom from decades of counseling. The focus of my words here is aimed at the parents of younger children, those children who will eventually be heading on to higher education in the increasingly difficult competitive admissions arena.


First of all, parents need to confront the question, “Can it really be that hard?”

Ethan Bronner, in an old but particularly apt New York Times article on the difficulties of elite admissions, quotes Dartmouth College’s former dean of admissions, Karl Furstenberg, on the subject of the high number of qualified applicants. Furstenberg said, “This makes our job harder, but it forces us to look at the intangibles … how many more excellent students can we turn away?” Dartmouth’s problem isn’t unique, by any means. Just take the time to check the current overall acceptance rates of the Top 100 schools in America to see how intense the situation has become.

 

Last year was, without doubt, the toughest year ever for college admissions, with Stanford University leading the way with a 5% (no, that’s not a typo; it’s five percent) acceptance rate. Many seniors with near perfect standardized test scores and other stellar accolades were either rejected from or waitlisted at the elites. I find this situation almost unbelievable. Obviously, sheer academic-numeric superiority won’t kick open Ivy doors. One crucial key lies in Dean Furstenberg’s word: intangibles.

One of my personal passions is classical piano music. Every four years, I look forward with great enthusiasm to the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which takes place in Ft. Worth, Texas. The competition attracts the world’s top young pianists who gather to compete for the piano world’s top prizes. This prestigious event is very much like the elite college admissions process.

The sheer number of richly qualified entrants is staggering, much like Dean Furstenberg’s situation was (and still is) at Dartmouth. In fact, so many wonderful and highly credentialed pianists desire to compete in the Cliburn that jurors have to travel to culture centers around the globe to audition and admit or deny competition applicants in a pre-screening process.

So why am I droning on about an esoteric music competition in Texas? After all, we’re discussing elite college admissions, right? Well, I’ve already hinted at one interesting parallel: the overwhelming number of superbly qualified applicants. Let’s focus on Dean’s Furstenberg’s interesting observation about “intangibles” through the eyes of the Van Cliburn jury.

The bar is considerably higher today than it has been in recent years for both elite college admissions and music competitions because the talent pool has grown significantly larger. There are a number of complex reasons for that, but I won’t discuss them right now.

Getting back to our music analogy, I listened to one of the Cliburn jurors discussing his personal criteria for selecting a winning pianist. He noted that merely “playing all the notes correctly” wasn’t enough. He was looking for the musicians, those players who could touch him on an internal level. The musicians are those who can project themselves beyond the printed notes on the page, who can reach out and move the judges. They are the artists whose attention to detail and personalized playing are so successful that the juror wants to hear more from them.

In today’s super-competitive college applicant pools, just about everyone has virtuoso numbers. And therein lies the key. This new “credential benchmark” requires Ivy/elite applicants to reveal themselves beyondsheer quantitative dimensions. They must display their “musicianship,” so to speak, those personal aspects that add nuance and passion to the application’s simple informational questions and essay prompts. In pianistic terms, they must perform the notes that lie between the keys.

So what’s a parent or younger, aspiring Ivy/elite applicant to do? How do you begin to approach this challenge?

Now that your head is about to implode under the sheer weight of all these complex considerations, you may be asking yourself, “How can I (or my child) deal with this world of spiraling complexity and difficulty?” You may be a high school student (hopefully not in the fall of your senior year) or the parent of a high schooler. If you’re a parent, your son or daughter may still be in the early grades, well prior to the crucial college-decision window.

But today my post today is mainly for parents, so I’m going to talk about your children. There will be some “developmental” stuff and some hints about temperament and personality types, which I covered last time. I’m talking here about observing your kids from about the age of three on. In general, three is the age where patterns begin to manifest and an alert parent can start to intuit the key indicators of youthful potential.

Passion is the key. The number of parents who have not truly discerned what their child’s passion is always surprises me. Oh, sure, they know that their young ones have certain propensities or obvious talents, but few Moms and Dads go to the trouble to be truly observant. The truth about a child’s passion sometimes lies beneath a pile of otherwise seemingly innocuous activities.

Don’t misjudge the fleetness of time. Your children’s formative years will pass more quickly than you can imagine. In today’s manic squirrel-cage of family activities, our daily whirlwind of duties, work, stress, and search for self-meaning dominates our senses. We have to take special care to truly “see” what is going on around us in our family life. Paul Simon, in his Sound of Silence, wrote, “People hearing without listening.” Don’t let the telltale clues of your child’s developmental promise slip by unnoticed. Keep a sharp eye out for what kindles the flames of his or her heart. The alliterative dictate is: Parents, perceive your progeny’s passion! Once you know what your child’s passion is, you’ll have taken a big step toward seeing a likely course for their future excellence.

Avoid the child-abuse police. Want to start a fight? The next time you’re in mixed company, just bring up the fact that you’re keeping a sharp eye on your grade schooler, looking for some early signs of precociousness. Who will that flush out?

“What’s wrong with you? Let the kid have a childhood, for crying out loud! You’re gonna warp the kid’s mind. Who do you think you are, B.F. Skinner?”

No, we’re not all B.F. Skinners. Some of us, however, do feel that our kids are, indeed, special and have deep reservoirs of potential. We’re the kinds of parents who, when we see our kid push a toy fire truck up the sliding board, see him creating potential energy rather than misbehaving. We’re not self-centered, elitist head-shrinkers; we’re curious, nurturing, loving observers. To us, our kids aren’t data; they’re destined.

So, then, here’s fair warning to all those out there who will come at us armed with their protests: Please understand us. We’re not frustrated behavioral psychologists here. We’re not trying to live our lives through our kids. We’re not exploiting their lives for our own selfish stage-mother/father ends. Truth is, we love our kids very much. We want to facilitate their complete “becoming,” or, to use a psychological term, their self-actualization. Maybe that’s because we didn’t “become” who we are ourselves until mid-life, if at all.

Life is filled with crossroads, mysterious locked doors, and buried treasure. When we think of our kids and the life that lies ahead of them, we just want to be a signpost, a key, and a metal detector. So please, take your protests back to headquarters and let us get on with the business of discovering our kids.

Who are your children? What exactly — beyond those adorable smiles and angelic faces — makes your children special? One of the miracles of parenting is watching our kids develop into real people. I remember that with my kids, I found them beginning to form their identities at around six months of age. That’s when they felt like a solid sack of potatoes and could alternately shriek and smile with vigor. Become more aware of the subtle nature of your child’s early development.

The purpose of my post today is to increase your sensitivity to your kids’ deep-rooted potential. If, after being properly sensitized, you judge that your son or daughter has true competitive acumen for the elite admissions process, then you may become an advocate for that outcome, should you choose to do so. However, if your intentions are rooted anywhere near your own self-interests, then you should do some serious soul searching. You may be gambling with your kid’s long-range happiness and college success.

My message to parents is pretty straightforward: “Observe your kids. Discover who they are. If they’re competitive, advocate some top colleges.” That’s all. Notice that the message is not: “Dedicate your life to getting your kid into the Ivy League, come hell or high water.” There’s a big difference. Don’t be a stand-in for your kids. They’ll have a hard enough time living their own lives. Don’t burden them with the extra weight of your unfulfilled dreams.

Let’s talk about enabling. Are you a control freak? Did you always want to tie your child’s shoestrings for them, clean their room, or even do some of their homework? If so, you could be an enabler.

You’ll probably be able to find a number of discussion forums on the Web (such as College Confidential’s) where enabling is a hot topic. I have observed heated exchanges among forum participants discussing how much help parents should offer their children during the college application process. One extreme faction adamantly states that parents shouldn’t even mail their kid’s college application for them. The other extreme admits to writing essays for their kid. There are many shades in between.

How does this relate to our discussion of the developmental years? Well, I’m certainly no behavioral psychologist, but my experience shows me that we can inhibit our children’s quest for self-identity by trying to insert ourselves into their developmental trials too strongly. When is it time for them to try to feed themselves (resulting in those classic highchair-tray food flings)? How about those shoestrings (they might trip and fall down)? And those post-tornado room scenes (I struggled with that)?

It’s not easy. We all want what’s best for our kids, but sometimes we get in the way of what’s best. When we do more for them than we should, we take away some of their independence.

Okay. As the Walking Boss asked Cool Hand Luke, “Do you have your mind right” yet? If you have a young one in the nest whom you’ve been observing and wondering about, it’s time to put some planning into gear. How should you get on with the task of identifying those remarkable characteristics that dwell with your child? Here’s a highly oversimplified parental plan covering age three through middle school.

Pre-school through elementary years: Encourage reading and broad-range interests. Look for signs of special talents. Get involved with your school’s guidance program.  Help your child develop computer skills and read, read, read with them.

Middle-School Years: Continue reading at all levels. Begin to emphasize writing and general communication skills. Watch for emerging leadership traits. Increase involvement with teachers and administrators. Consider having your child take the SAT to qualify for advanced programs such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

High-School Years: Well, that’s for another day’s post. You’ve got your hands rather full right now. Stay tuned …

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Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.