Holiday Gifts

As a grandmother enjoys a sunny day at the beach with her five year-old grandson, the sky darkens and an enormous wave comes out of nowhere washing the child out to sea. Hysterical with fear the grandmother frantically shouts to the lifeguard who is already sprinting toward the ocean. Fighting the chaotic waves, the lifeguard reaches the drowning child. After a heroic struggle, the lifeguard returns the child, unharmed, to the shore. The child picks up a plastic shovel and continues playing. As the lifeguard vomits sea water and lies on the beach gasping for air, the grandmother shakes her fist and shouts at him: "He had a hat!"

Most college admissions counselors to whom I tell that joke over the years have nodded sagely. They say, "Yeah, I know that family." Then they tell a story of their own. Here are a few of my favorites:

1) A student is given a new Lexus for her 16th birthday. Does she say, "Mom, Dad, you will never regret your generosity"? Does she say, "I'm going to wash this car every week, increase my hours at my part time job so I can pay for all the gas and part of the insurance. I'm going to take my little brother to school and you can count of me for grocery shopping and other errands"? No. Instead she breaks down in tears and opines, "I was hoping for a BMW!"

2) A concerned mom comes to see her son's counselor at the school. "You just don't understand," she says. "My son is the second best trumpet player in the school. If only the band teacher would spend more time with him, give him private instruction, help him after school, he would be the first chair." (Mom's statement may make some sense and evoke some sympathy until the gentle reader considers that the current first chair trumpet would then be second.)

3) "My child's life is ruined," Mom says to the high school admissions counselor in April. "He studied obsessively all through high school; he focused on his classwork, never wasted time helping his classmates (and why should he? They're all applying to the same top colleges.) He had SATs in the top 2% of the nation." Mom pauses to press a tissue to her eyes. "But he was rejected at Darmouth."

"Has he been admitted to any other colleges?" the counselor inquires gently.

"Yes. He'll have to choose between Middlebury, Davidson, Amherst, Williams, Haverford, Northwestern and Weslyan." Mom, untouched by irony, continues: "But he really wanted to go to Dartmouth."

What do all these hysterical piranhas have in common? What mistake are they all making?

1) Competition is a worthwhile paradigm in the NFL--less so in a high school math class. Children who concentrate on who is doing better focus less on what they are learning. Just like a man who loves his job will never work a day in his life, a child who loves to learn will read and study on her own.

2) We want to communicate to our kids that we care about them for who they are, not for what they do. Somebody has to be second chair trumpet. Unless your child is the next Leonard Bernstein, let him be.

3) Here's what never happens. (Seriously, I've been advising families about choosing and applying to college for over 25 years now. I'm working with the children of the children whom I counselled in the early 1980s. The following scenario never happens. Never.) A student who goes to Williams rather than Dartmouth ends up drinking wine in the gutter rather than getting an MD/PhD and living a happy, contented life.

That's right. Never.

Next time you consider haranging your child's college admissions professional, take ten seconds to look at the world from their point of view: her yearly salary is less than the cost of a year of private college. And she's thrilled that your son has the opportunity to go to Williams--Williams being clearly distinguishable from the Bataan Death March.

"I wanted the BMW not the Lexus." "He should be first chair trumpet." "He wanted Dartmouth rather than Williams."

"He had a hat."

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