Let's Stop the March College Madness

For those of us with students in the middle of the college admissions process, March Madness has a whole new meaning! 

I’m the mother of two young-adults, so I remember March well: If you’ve got a senior, you're consumed with worry about coming college admissions decisions, all of which are released by April 1. Juniors are in the middle of the SAT or ACT prep and test-taking grind. Sophomores are debating just how many “rigorous” classes they can cram into their junior year schedules and just how little sleep they need; maybe a zero period IS doable! 

Listening to the college-related chatter that swirls year-round can bring a gnawing fear: Did you hear about Steve? Straight A’s and he didn’t get in ANYWHERE! 

Maybe you’ve heard some of these “truths,” as well: Your kid has to play a varsity sport—and for all four years—or you can forget about it. And take at least 3 APs by junior year. Also play an instrument. And don’t forget about community service. Nowadays, kids have to “brand” themselves!

The transition from high school is a big step, so it’s natural to feel some anxiety about the college process. But the sports analogy holds; somehow, we’ve transformed a personal journey that should be exciting and fun into a competition—and that’s creating an undue amount of pressure for our kids.

I’d like to offer a different perspective, one based on my own children’s experiences and the experiences of the many students I’ve college-counseled over the years. 

  • Your student will get into college! According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there are just shy of 3000 4-year degree-granting institutions in the United States. There truly is a place for every student, no matter how untraditional the high school experience, challenging the learning differences, or unique the academic interests.
  • It’s also important to remember that 4-year college immediately following high school is not the right path for every student. A gap year, trade school, employment, and/or junior or community college can be terrific options.
  • A focus on fit, instead of on “brand-name” schools that might happen to be at the top of the U.S. News & World Report list, makes for a successful college process. 
  • Most parents I speak to are clear they want their kids to be “happy” and “successful.” But too often, the assumption is that those outcomes are only possible with a degree from certain institutions. 
  • The “best” college? In my opinion, that’s the one that offers the programs, resources, and culture that suit a student’s unique academic, extracurricular, and social profile. 
  • Bragging rights are nice. But if the goal is truly a student’s happiness and success, it’s more important that he lands in an environment where he feels comfortable enough to make the most of the opportunities that are available.
  • (Aside: You might be interested to know that few of the variables used to compile the U.S. News & World Report rankings list have much direct bearing on the undergraduate experience. For more information about how the list is created, go here: http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-us-news-calculated-the-rankings?page=2)
  • It helps to keep your eyes on your own paper. The less information you and your student share, the less opportunity others will have to make judgments and offer you anxiety-producing (and often incorrect) “advice.”
  • Consider making a pact with your circle of friends (and encouraging your student to do so, too) not to ask one another—or each other’s children!—about college lists, test scores, and “top choices.” 
  • In the absence of such an agreement, don’t initiate college-themed conversations. When asked, practice these responses: “Oh, she hasn’t decided yet.” “He doesn’t have a top choice.” “You’ve probably never heard of them.” “I don’t really know!” “He asked me not to talk about it.” 
  • By the time our kids reach high school, our job is to offer ample words of encouragement and limited, well-timed words of advice—and to let go of the reins.
  • If you find yourself using “we” (as in: “We’re applying Early Action to as many schools as possible” or “We’re taking the ACT again in the spring”), you might want to remind yourself that the steps and tasks of the college process are critical preparation for success in college—and life. If we don’t give kids the chance to develop these skills, we’re robbing them of the wisdom, confidence, and self-knowledge that come with experience.
  • Remind yourself of this truth: If the goal of the process has been to pursue the “best fit” college at which your student will thrive, the most stressful part of the journey will be deciding between all the terrific options.

Helen Codron, M.A.