You May Be Right

boarding schoolMaybe hurtling down the road to nowhere is the right play. It's possible that where your child goes to college is more important than who your child is. There might be value in studying five hours a night, falling asleep with a book on your chest and the lights on. There may be something to be said for over-the-top anxiety and despair over grades. Maybe "Duke or die" is the way to go; It's possible that memorizing the capitals of the 50 states like the teacher assigned is more valuable than feasting on a book on Norse mythology. Maybe doing whatever you need to do to have a shot at being admitted to a big name college is the right call.

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But what if you're wrong? What if who your child is matters more than where she goes? What if your relationship with your child is more important than her acceptance at a big name college? Maybe what is in her head is more cogent than some grades on a piece of paper. Maybe her actual ability is more valid than just the appearance thereof.

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What if you acknowledge that your child will go to college somewhere and that what she knows matters more than the name on your bumpah stickah? True Fact: with a B- average at Harvard and a good MCAT score, you will not be admitted to any medical school in the United States of America. Whereas with an A average from North Cornstalk State and the same MCAT score, you have every likelihood of being admitted to study medicine at Harvard.

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Another True Fact: Kids who take a pile of AP classes and complete all the assignments vacuous and otherwise typically don't have the time or inclination to read that which is not assigned. "Which book that you have read outside of class has had the greatest effect on you and why?" was the essay prompt at a name college recently. An honest student who had taken an overwhelming heaping of AP classes admitted that he had never read a book that wasn't assigned. Denmark is not the only place where something is rotten. Except that this student won't recognize that referent because "Hamlet" wasn't assigned.

Patron: Pardon me, what time is it?

Waiter: That's not my table.

"Life is much to be endured and little to be enjoyed" said Dr. Johnson. But childhood as well? Unending misery followed by more of the same? Eight-year-old children with hours of homework? Hasn't our culture come any distance from coal mines and child labor? Surely a PhD in child development isn't necessary to spell "unstructured" and "outdoors."

If parents relax about the admissions process there is big payback. And it's all positive.

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What do we have for the contestants, Johnny?

If you calm down about college admissions, here's what you win:

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1) THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS. Yep! Put $3K in the family coffers. Three thousand dollars is enough for 107 nights sleeping out under the stars in a California State Park, even more nights at less expensive parks in the high desert in Utah. There is no chance--zero--that your daughter will see a mountain lion while simmering in a sterile classroom obsessing over bubble skills. But my kids and I saw a red-tailed hawk swoop down and grab a snake in its talons on a recent camping trip. Admittedly a red-tailed hawk is not quite the same as a mountain lion but don't forget the trip when my kids and I almost maybe saw a panther (link) or possibly a somnambulant raccoon, but the point remains. You might see a mountain lion on a camping trip; in an SAT course, no chance. It's your $3000. Your child can spend ten hours a day suffering with triangles or be on the look out for charismatic mega-fauna. Up to you.

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But wait. There's more!

2) Peace in your home. Priceless. What can you do with those hours not spent festering over admission to HYPSDD? (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, Dartmouth and the rest of that well-marketed short list.) Off the top of my head, I might recommend building  rocking chairs; baking cookies; volunteering at the homeless shelter; hiking the Appalachian Trail; becoming an accomplished chess player; watching every Humphery Bogart movie; reading all the Raymond Chandler novels; bowling; visiting all the museums within fifty miles of your home; or spending time with all the lonely elderly widows on your street.

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3) The fourth of five lovely girls is writing her essay for her college application. Although neither of her parents finished high school, her three older sisters are college graduates. Her counselor advises the student to play the first generation card. "Pretend you only have the one younger sister; don't mention the older ones" the counselor wheedles. "You'll get preferential treatment in the admissions process if colleges think you are the first one in your family to go to college."

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I hope you are outraged at the perfidy of this back alley counselor. I wonder if this counselor's other clients include Lance Armstrong and Bernie Madoff. "In a place where there are no men, strive thou to be a man" a religious tradition suggests. Yes, perhaps everyone else is cheating. Selling the soul of your family for an alleged greater chance of admission at a select college impresses this author as a bad bargain.

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If you focus on your relationship with your child--"we frequently can discern truth from fiction in our family"--over getting in--"pretend you are a 6' 8" first-generation basketball playing applicant from Gulagistan who speaks five languages and will contribute mega-bucks to the development fund'--there will be long range positive consequences. Your child will know that she is valued for who she is rather than where she gets admitted. Your child will look back on her college years knowing she was accepted under valid pretenses. Your child will know that she comes from a family that values the truth over facile prevarications. Your child has a better shot at living a guilt free life.

Something to be said for that.

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6 thoughts on “You May Be Right

  1. Robert McGrath

    You make some valid points although I am not in complete agreement.

    Kids do get too much homework. They do not have the same opportunity for fun as their parents enjoyed. I do not really see the purpose, but it gets even worse in high school. Frankly, AP courses are mostly a joke.

    Students are conditioned to get those extra credits because college admissions are so competitive. Some parents are even scammed into paying for AP classes that award college credits at XYZ college, but only for that school. This competitive nature does not bring out the best in the students. My daughter’s private high school had a code of core values. It was common knowledge that some members of the top 10 students had cheated their entire high school career. Their peers said nothing.

    For the student who does not have a direction, community college is a cost-effective solution. So is trade school. We will always need trades, for instance an A-rated auto technician can work in an air-conditioned shop and earn $100k.

    For those with a goal for an area of specialization I think it depends on the field. If your student wants to study the electromagnetic influences upon bee pollenization and there’s one school that is renowned for that then that’s the school to shoot for. Have plan B of course, but this is a time to shoot for the moon.

    Just how much of what we learn in college transfers into everyday life? SNL’s Father Guido Sarducci’s bit of “Five Minute University” covered Economics and other college topics in less than the span of a TV commercial break. For my special needs son, basic life skills: math, so he does not get short changed, verbal skills to communicate, and logical reasoning are what you need to get by. I never used Trig or geometry even in years as a pilot. We don’t bather with homework, peace is preferred. He may go to college someday, more for socialization than education. He may be simple, but honest, unaffected by the plight of the overachievers.

    Ultimately, the goal of parents is to have an adult comfortable in their own skin. It does little to keep pushing a child to the point of neurosis.

  2. Martin

    Of course I love the message in this tale / these tales. Living my life by these precepts has resulted in the following: No medical school admission. No Nobel Prize. No Guggenheim Fellowship (I don’t even know what they are given for). No Fulbright Award. And, most especially, no Rhodes Scholarship. Nevertheless, having made it beyond three score and ten with no nights in jail (we won’t count that sit-in for the Free Speech Movement), with a vegetable garden out front, a deck and patio out back with fragrant and colorful herbs and ornamental plants, and a sailboat waiting in the marina, it hasn’t been a total loss.

    One question: If doing less homework in grade school means more time for video / computer games, what benefit the leisure. Some nod in a future piece to the inestimable (unless someone has already done a PhD making a credible estimate) value of example would be helpful. As in “if you want your child to like reading and read for pleasure, have books around the house and sit down to read them when you want to relax, rather than staring into a TV, computer screen or tablet.” Or (and this is one you’ve done many times, “If you want your child to get good exercise and enjoy nature, go on a hike (or take them sailing!) rather than just nagging them to get the air-conditioned house and go our in the heat (or snow) and play in traffic or hang out in the park where the dope dealers practice their trade.”

  3. Richard A. Freeman

    Such simple and sage advice. I went to Tufts University. A good school that was hard to get into, even back in the 1960’s. What impact has attending that school had on my life? Not much. At the age of 74, I can count on two hands the number of times in the last 52 years that people have asked me what college I went to. Did it open doors for me that otherwise would have been locked? That’s difficult to say with any certainty. At Tufts, I studied philosophy as my major. It was interesting; even exciting, to read many of the philosophical texts that have been written over the last 2,000 years. But in terms of quantifiable or identifiable consequences of having gone to a “great school,” I can’t think of any. Nonetheless, being in the Boston area was “fun.” College is a place to “expand your mind.” It did that, for sure. But did my life take a trajectory that was meteoric because I went to a good college? The meteor that I rode was because of me, and my objectives; not because of my college. I could have gone to a lesser school without having harmed my career. That’s easy to say, but probably true. So, the quest for one of the top schools in the country may be a fool’s errand that is promulgated by parents who want the best for their kids. Instead, they should strive to help their kids experience the wonderful things in life (great conversations; great friends; curiosity; imagination; creativity; self-sufficiency; reading, etc.), including self-esteem. The college admission process is often the antithesis of building self-esteem. To receive rejections from multiple colleges is a bad way to start the road to becoming a self-sufficient adult. Alas.

    1. David Post author

      Beautifully articulated and, in my mind, truer than true.

      “Top” colleges–like Tufts–are indeed wonderful. No argument. But they typically admit intellectually curious, brilliant, motivated students. Measuring the “value added” is an entirely different and much more difficult proposition.

      Glad you reached out. I wish you could communicate with every 17-year-old applicant of this generation.

  4. Richard A. Freeman

    David: Your narrative writing style, and well thought-out messages, make my mental tuning fork vibrate. If you run out of ideas for new messages, perhaps we might collaborate. I’m now retired, but my brain hasn’t stopped working (yet). I’d be happy to help you with inspiration for new articles, or perspiration in writing (or editing) them.

    Rich Freeman
    (917) 769-8199 (mobile)


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