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Getting Into The Top Colleges—Are Parents Pushing Too Hard?

Changing our Focus Away From the Top Colleges

The first day of high school for a ninth grader is a bit like the Olympics opening ceremony for athletes: a prelude to the biggest race of their lives. The finish line? Senior year. The winners? The chosen handful of students accepted by the nation’s top colleges, our most prestigious universities. Or, maybe not.

Experts have been quietly cautioning for years that pressuring our kids to get into the top rated colleges—which reject the vast majority of applicants—actually does them more harm than good. Now they’re shouting in the hopes that we parents finally get the message.

The latest appeal: psychologist Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well, which paints a grim picture of what pushing our children to perfection—in college admissions and elsewhere—is doing.

“Our current version of success is a failure,” Levine writes—and she ought to know. Levine practices in Marin County, CA, an affluent region packed with teenagers struggling to meet the demands placed on them by parents, teachers, college counselors, even peers. And the stories she tells are disturbing: cheating, drug use, intense sadness, anger, anxiety and depression. Perhaps most painful of all, she sees a generation of teenagers who have little time or willpower to find pleasure in their own lives because they are so focused on achieving their parents’ definition of success.

Why Parents Push

How did we get so caught up with creating the perfect teenager? We invest in their success—academic, athletic, or other feats in order to gain admission to the most elite colleges. We set expectations that we never dreamed of when we were teenagers.

Experts cite several factors.

No. 1, we’re worried. Today’s world is simply tougher than when we graduated from college. While we competed with mostly U.S. graduates, our children will compete with graduates from around the world. Degrees from the top colleges might just give our teenagers an edge.

Next, not only are more students applying to college, more students are applying to elite colleges, thanks to the Common Application. A larger pool of applicants makes it that much harder to stand out in the top tier. This in turn makes us push our teenagers to be the best among the best.

And finally, as unpleasant as it may be, Levine and others say, it’s time for affluent parents to take a long, hard look at the version of success we’re peddling to our teenagers. Success often has more to do with getting the best education and highest salary, rather than valuing what in our guts we know really matters.

“If you think about the typical affluent community, there are beautiful homes with amazing cars in the driveway. You spend a couple of decades in one of these communities and you start to believe that your kid has to be perfect because everyone’s kids are perfect,” notes John Duffy, a psychologist in La Grange, Illinois, and author of The Available Parent. “But what those teenagers are experiencing, the depression and anxiety, is real and profound and often comes out on the couch, here.”

Our worries and expectations are ingrained. What will it take to change or even, opt out of this race toward perfection that is, quite literally, wrecking our teenagers? Your Teen spoke with experts to find out some simple strategies for real change. Parents, it’s up to you now.

1. Broaden your college list

Listening to the buzz about college admissions—in the media, in line at Starbucks, on College Confidential—it’s easy to feel that getting into the best colleges is all but impossible these days. Truth? There are actually only a handful of institutions that are exceptionally selective, like the Ivies, Stanford, MIT and, well …. you know which ones they are.

Why so impossible? Because this short list is where every high-achieving teenager in every U.S. city (and around the world) applies every year. And every year, these universities will reject 90 percent of applicants, despite their top scores, stellar transcripts, and packed resumes.

Take last fall’s applicants to Harvard University: an applicant pool of 34,302, including 3,800 students ranked No. 1 in their class. Harvard accepted five percent or 2,032, of applicants (and not all of them ranked top of their class, mind you).

“Four kids on my street applied to Harvard. There’s only 20 houses,” notes Emma Freer, a recent graduate of Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

There are two ways to respond to this bottom line. One, you can pressure your teenager to be extraordinary academically and otherwise, all the while acknowledging the slim margin of victory. This path might lead to Harvard, but it will more likely lead to anxiety and depression. Or it may just make your teenager check out of academics altogether. And many students do once they realize they can’t meet the near impossible admissions requirements of the most elite colleges.

Alternatively, you can look at other options.

“If you are willing to cast a wider net, then finding the best colleges for you is truly not as hard as everybody makes out,” says Lynn O’Shaugnessy, author of the bestselling book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right College at the Right Price.

“You don’t have to kill yourself with excess AP classes or a million extracurricular activities,” she adds. “It starts with identifying the great schools. Parents think there are just two- or three-dozen schools that are worth applying to. That’s just not the case.”

Indeed, do your homework and you’ll discover that there are many selective colleges and universities that accept anywhere from 20 percent, to 50 percent or more of its applicants.

That’s not to say that if you have an academically gifted student, he shouldn’t apply to an über-elite institution. But, be realistic about your teenager’s prospects of landing a spot (again, slim-to-none for even the most talented). And, understand that applying to more of these schools doesn’t increase the odds.

“Applying to all the Ivies will not help your chances of getting in,” O’Shaugnessy stresses.

So, look beyond the US News rankings. Make sure your teenager’s list includes some of the many stellar schools that are not Brand Name U. The upside: Your student will gain admission to a wonderful university—with a lot less stress—and may also land a hefty package of merit aid, money that chart-topping schools don’t offer (because they don’t have to).

2. Trim extracurricular activities

If you’re like many parents, especially in affluent neighborhoods, you’ve spent a lot of time shuttling your teenager from one extracurricular activity to another.

So, on a scale of 1-10, where would you rank the importance of extracurriculars in college acceptance? A “3” or “4?”

Try “11.” That’s right, extracurricular activities don’t even make the top 10, according to the 2012 State of College Admission Report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

“The extracurricular resume is only important for a few schools,” notes Kris Hintz, founder of PositionU4College in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. “But, I think a lot of parents have gleaned from the media that this applies to every college and it doesn’t.”

Ironically, extraccuriculars matter the most to the handful of elites that reject 90 percent of all applicants. And, they aren’t looking for a laundry list. “They’re looking for very deep, very high accomplishment,” Hintz explains.

The majority of students can cut back from the hurry-scurry and focus on what most colleges consider: grades, challenging classes, and test scores.

In cutting back, let your teenager choose extracurriculars that interest them for the long-term. “Schools like to see some commitment, that the applicant is not flitting from one thing to another,” explains The College Solution’s O’Shaugnessy. “For example, my daughter liked art and soccer, and that was enough.

There’s no “must-do” extracurricular that colleges look for, but students routinely pick activities that they perceive will give them an advantage. Sadly, that means many students are not doing the extracurriculars that they enjoy most.

“It gets really confusing when you are making all these decisions based on how you think it’s going to look on your college application,” notes Freer, who will attend St. Andrews in Scotland this fall.

However, there is one hard-and-fast rule about extracurriculars: they should not interfere with academics. “Extracurriculars are not a back door into college,” Hintz notes. “If an extracurricular activity comes at the expense of grades, then you’re actually hurting your application, not helping.”

3. Think about the end game

Broadening the list of colleges and cutting out some extracurricular activities is a start. But, how to sustain this over the long, four years of the high school race to college? Get in touch with what really matters.

“This is the easy part,” Duffy notes. “I will ask parents, ‘Tell me what you want for your child?’ And invariably, it’s not, ‘I want him to go to Harvard;’ it’s, ‘I just want him to find something he loves, make a contribution, and be happy.’ I’ve seen parents adapt with just that reminder.”

At the end of the day, ask yourself: Is my goal to produce a college applicant or a thriving young adult? These are two different ends, the experts say. In fact, by focusing too much on pushing our teenagers toward perfection, we can end up doing more harm than good.

“When parents are too controlling, they do way too much decision making,” Duffy explains. “They will tell their teen specifically what they have to do. These stories sometimes don’t end well. The teenager can end up in the wrong career or the wrong relationship because they have never learned to make decisions on their own.”

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t encourage your teenager to achieve, especially when it comes to academics (which, remember, is what matters most to colleges). But, help them do it on their own terms and at a realistic level. A few students can handle a weighty AP load, but most just can’t.

That was Seattle-area mom, Linda Carlson’s, approach to helping her teenagers get through high school. One graduated from the Naval Academy, and the other attends Harvey Mudd College.

“We didn’t push them to do things just for the sake of the college application,” Carlson notes. “We expected them to get into good colleges, but on the basis of their academics and the extracurriculars they chose.”

So, parents, here’s a recommendation: take 10 minutes to think about what it’s like to live your teenager’s life. Would you be overwhelmed by her academic schedule and extracurriculars? Is there time for family dinners and hanging out on the weekend? The question is—Can there be success without a brand name college? What are the best colleges for your teenager?

It’s never too late to ease up, for both you and your teen. And we’re pretty sure your teenager will thank you, someday.

Diana Simeon

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.