Parents: Take a Chill Pill

I was at a preschool reunion on Sunday that reminded me about how nuts the college admission process is for a fraction of high school students and their families.
The families I am talking about are the kind that you can find featured in the over-hyped documentary Race to Nowhere. Here, by the way, is what I think of that flick: A Race to Nowhere Skeptic andPhoeey: Race to Nowhere

The preschool reunion was more for the adults than my son (a college sophomore) and his former preschool classmates. Quite a few of us have remained friends and our children have done well academically. Two of the children are at Yale and another one will be heading there in the fall. One child will be a freshman at Macalester College, the daughter of the hostess attends Mount Holyoke College, another is an engineering student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and my son goes to Beloit College.
Some of these students attended expensive private high schools in San Diego. The kind of schools where parents are willing to spend $25,000 a year if it increases their children’s chances of getting into Ivy League schools. My son, by the way, went to a charter public high school.

Can These Teen Get Into Any Good Colleges?

A mom, whose daughter will be a high school senior, approached me at the party for advice. She said she was discouraged by her daughter’s college prospects.
The mom shared that her daughter’s GPA wasn’t very good — it was only a 3.8. The mother was also worried that her child’s SAT score would be just as underwhelming. The teenager hasn’t taken the real test, but in practice sessions she’s gotten a 1910 and a 1950. Adding to her worries, the mom told me that her child’s extracurriculars were subpar. She is a classical guitar player, an accomplished fencer and she’s artistic.
Does anybody else see something wrong with the mom’s pessimism? The teenager has an excellent GPA. Most students would kill for a SAT in the 1900 range. And her extracurriculars sound delightful.
The mom is gloomy, however, because she’s been comparing her child to the students at the private high school where many students — or rather many parents — feel their children must go to institutions like Yale or they will be academic failures. And she wasn’t the only parent at the party who confided worry about her child’s academic profile. Since I’m a magnet for college questions, another mom asked me yesterday about her rising high school senior who got a 1890 on the SAT and has earned a 3.25 GPA at a very tough private school.

Cheer Up

I attribute part of the anxiety of these parents to the fact that the top brand name schools that they know about — typically on the West and East Coasts — do reject most students. But that still leaves a universe of more than 2,000 colleges and universities to select from.
I told both moms that their children enjoyed lots of college choices. I also explained that more than 70% of high school seniors end up getting in to their first choice school. By the end of the party they seemed much more relaxed.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of Shrinking the Cost of College, a workbook available on her website. She also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. On Twitter follow her @CollegeBlogs.

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  1. I suspect that what you advised went into one ear and out the other. These parents never get it, which is why I almost always refuse to work with them. I don’t have to “put up with” the student – they get where I’m coming from, you know, right-fit college and all that impies. It’s the parent who’s nearly intolerable.

  2. The mother who lamented her daughter’s 3.8 GPA, sub par extras and less than 2000 SAT score sounds like a Tiger Mother clone. College admissions have become an absurd game with many of our nation’s “best” students the losers. I have watched students’ self esteem take a direct hit when rejected by elite schools. The disappointment shown by their parents only adds to the pain.
    Lynn, thank you for being a strong voice that counters this obsession. What will it take to reverse this trend?

  3. Lynn, you wrote in 2009 about prep courses for the SAT and mentioned one called ePrep, that you were trying with a child of yours. You mentioned that you might write a follow-up on the story to report if you found the service helpful. I am curious – I did not see a follow-up.

    1. Hi Emmett,
      Thanks for your comment. You’re right that I never got around to doing a follow up on ePrep. I guess the reason was that it’s difficult to know what impacts a child’s SAT score. Ben ended up doing extremely well on the math portion of his SAT. He got a 700 in Math, but is that because he is really good at math or because he took community college classes to supplement what I considered to be the poor math instruction at his high school or ePrep? It was probably a combination of all of them. His reading score didn’t go up much at all, but then my son, alas, isn’t a reader. I think it’s hard to improve reading scores if you aren’t a reader. That’s just my opinion.
      I did like ePrep. It’s low cost and it allows students to take portions of the tests and then get the explanation for each answer by looking at a video. I think that will appeal to many children who are on the Internet a lot.
      I think the key is actually doing the work regardless of what test prep method you use and I think a lot of kids frankly just go through the motions. Hope that helps.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy