Admissions

Parents: Discover Your Children

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I’d like to share some observations that I’ve gathered over the decades about the relationship between parents and high schoolers who are involved in the college admissions process. That relationship can be productive, combative, enabling or ultimately disappointing. If you’re the parent of a someday college applicant, perhaps these insights may be helpful.

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


The most frequent type of parent I’ve dealt 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 legitimate contender for admission, and (2) those who have no idea about how difficult (and random) the elite college admissions process has become.

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 admission, Karl Furstenberg, on 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. 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 five percent (no, that’s not a typo) acceptance rate. Many seniors with near-perfect standardized test scores and other stellar accolades were either rejected from or wait-listed at the elites. Obviously, sheer academic superiority won’t open elite college 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. In fact, so many wonderful and highly credentialed pianists desire to compete in The Cliburn that jurors travel to culture centers around the globe to audition and admit or deny competition applicants in a pre-screening process.

So why am I mentioning an esoteric music competition in Texas? How does that relate to elite college admissions? Well, I’ve already hinted at one interesting parallel: the overwhelming number of superbly qualified applicants. Let’s focus on “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. But, getting back to my 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, those who could project themselves beyond the printed notes on the page and reach out and move the judges. These are the artists whose attention to detail and personalized playing inspire the jurors 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 beyond sheer 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 bring out the notes that lie between the keys.

So what’s a parent to do? How can you approach this challenge? From my perspective, it all centers around an often overused word.

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 surprisingly, few moms and dads are truly observant. The truth about a child’s passion sometimes lies beneath a pile of otherwise seemingly innocuous activities.

Don’t misjudge the speed of time passing. Your children’s formative years will go by 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 noting a likely course for his or her future excellence.

Most parents feel that their 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 misunderstanding the purpose of playground equipment. I would see a child who isn’t a conformist, one who seeks interesting approaches to traditional patterns.

Some friends or relatives may see this early age observation and evaluation process as both unnecessary and intrusive. To those who might question us, I would say, “Please understand us. We’re not frustrated behavioral psychologists. We’re not trying to live our lives through our kids. We’re not exploring their developmental years for our own selfish stage-mother/father ends. Truth is, we love our kids very much. We want to help facilitate their ‘becoming’ sooner than later. 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 for them.”

Who Are Your Children? 

What exactly -- beyond their smiles, moods, general behaviors -- 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 a surprisingly early age. I urge you to become more aware of the subtle nature of your child’s development across the years.

The purpose of my post today is to increase your sensitivity to your child’s 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 child’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) 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. 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?

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.

As the Walking Boss asked Cool Hand Luke, “Do you have your mind right?” If you have a young one at home 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 within your child? Here’s an oversimplified parental plan you may care to consider:

Up through the elementary years:

- Encourage reading and broad-range interests.

- Look for signs of special talents.

- Get involved with the school’s guidance program.

- Help your child develop some computer skills, but limit excessive screen time.

- 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 your involvement with teachers and administrators.

- Investigate advanced programs such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

High-School Years:

I’ll save that for another day’s post. You’ve got your hands full right now. Stay tuned.