Father worries daughter getting caught up in pre-college maelstrom

Issue January 2006

Q:As I write this, it’s 1 a.m. and our 17-year-old daughter is at her computer, still working on tonight’s homework and fuming that my wife asked how she’s coming along on the college application essays. I feel angry that she’s up so late (and then often late for school the next day), but I can’t really blame her, since she spends most of the afternoon and evening at lacrosse, orchestra and working on a literary magazine. My wife has been on a mission to get her into a top-notch college, even hired a college application “coach,” and this leads to much conflict because my daughter feels so much pressure. I thought my wife was pushing too hard when she urged my daughter to take four or five Advanced Placement courses this year, but we’ve now attended two information sessions at college admissions offices, and, sure enough, they said that successful applicants will take as many AP courses as possible – and get A’s! My own (rather distant) memories of applying to college, and law school, were nothing like this. I question whether it’s worth it.

A:Anyone who stands back to gain some perspective would ask the same question. The reality is that most young people who want to go to college can have an excellent learning and social experience at any number of colleges, and that enjoying and thriving on that process probably contributes more toward ultimate success than getting into an Ivy League school. But, perhaps especially in pockets of high-achievement, academia-oriented Massachusetts, not to mention the hard-driven world of lawyers, it is nearly impossible not to be sucked into the competitive, pre-college maelstrom. In some towns, parents who don’t pay for SAT prep courses might even be seen as virtually neglectful.

By the time this is printed, your daughter will probably have submitted her applications, but your experience may help guide the parents of this year’s high school juniors. While college admissions officers recoil from the pushy, over-involved, frenzied parents of many of their applicants, they also contribute to the problem. Their aggressive marketing to high school kids is often followed with the message that they will favor students who get straight A’s in advanced courses, excel in sports and other extra-curricular activities, score in top SAT percentiles and show memorable uniqueness in their all-important application essays. The situation becomes overwhelming for teens. Understandably, parents tend to get very involved, leading to even more anxiety.

Some colleges are trying to reduce the pressure a bit. MIT Admissions Dean Marilee Jones, for example, decreased the number of lines on the application for listing extracurricular activities and deleted the section for listing special distinctions in such activities. She laments the loss of time that high school kids once had for some degree of relaxation, happiness-seeking and “daydreaming.”

Parents may do well to help their 11th and 12th graders organize the (unfortunately lengthy) sequence of college application steps, breaking them down into manageable chunks with target dates for completion. (Even that can be overwhelming, and easier for parents the second time around.) They might ask constructive questions in helping their kids arrive at ideas for essays, and try to create a climate of enjoyable exploration in the college selection process. But, to the extent possible, the application process should be the student’s project, with the parents as a source of encouragement and balance. This is much easier said than done (and we haven’t even talked about the financial concerns that bring even more stress), but it’s a worthy goal to keep our kids from burning out before they even arrive on campus.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

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