If You Haven’t Started the College Conversation – You Might Have Done Yourself a Favor

By Sam Rosensohn

Have you ever entered a conversation where assured and cheerful parents are sharing what they’ve done over the last four years to position their kids to get into just the right colleges, and you’ve barely started the conversation at home?

Most of us have – and that might be an excellent place to be, according to a Swarthmore College psychologist, Barry Schwartz, who recently wrote an essay for The Chronicle, one of the nation’s leading higher education publications.

Schwartz makes the case that high school students who connect the college dots early freshmen year and only do what they think will pave the way to a prestigious college learn less when they get to Swarthmore or any other school.

Studies, he says, demonstrate that students who learned because they were interested in succeeding rather than because they were interested in learning are less motivated to learn for the sake of learning once they enter college.

Real mastery in the classroom demands risk taking and experimentation, which is too risky if a student is trying to build a GPA for college. “I believe that intense competition creates a classroom where only results matter. It makes the stakes so high that students can’t afford to take risks,” Schwartz wrote.

“Everything they do is calculated to produce better credentials – high grades, great SAT scores, impressive extracurricular activities. They choose classes that play to their strengths, rather than those that might correct their weaknesses or nurture new interests.”

Kids who are on the fast college track also run the risk of burning out  – we have a friend whose kid is thinking of going to a “play” school in Colorado, because he’s nearly burnt to a crisp due to the push since middle school to get into one of the Ivies. He just completed junior year and was feeling this way last October.

My concern about putting kids on the college track that has – only level one courses, superior grades, high SATs, and resume building – is that it sends the wrong message to kids: Don’t follow your interests, but rather identify what colleges are looking for and run your lives according to their expectations.

Now most of us know that’s not the way to go, but I will tell you I have two dear buddies, who live in Manhattan and who went to their mailboxes – hands shaking – to see if their kids had been accepted into pre-K programs that worked as feeders to prestigious elementary schools that paved the way to top secondary schools.

While most of us can laugh at that kind of high insanity, there’s still plenty of anxiety in our own schoolyards over whether our kids are on track. Take my son, Zac, a rising junior at Wesleyan University.  It wasn’t too long ago that a parent asked me with an amazed look why I had let Zac take an art class and an accounting class, neither of which was a level one class.

Wouldn’t this hurt his class rank?
Of course it hurt his rank, but school for our family is not primarily about building a college resume. It’s about getting in touch with what our children are interested in and exploring and enjoying those fields. Zac learned more from four years of high school football than he did from four years of level one Spanish.

I also know that the lessons and pleasures and bonds from the other activities Zac did outside of class with his friends and off the athletic fields have had a more lasting effect than the work he memorized for AP classes.

Besides, every year there are students who have 4.0 averages with exceptionally high SAT scores, who don’t get into the schools of their choice.

So what are a mom and dad to do? Ignore the college conversations about getting the inside track on college admissions?  I don’t think so. It’s important to learn as much as you can about the college trail and then decide what’s best for your kid.

It’s also important to remember that since approximately 80 percent of the kids who apply to any given school have the grades and the SAT scores to get in, colleges place a large emphasis on what the individual candidates have done outside of class. And be assured they don’t want a kid on the verge of collapse.

Colleges are looking for students who will fit well into their programs and succeed. They’re looking to discover students who genuinely pursued one or two interests that suggest that the candidates will fit nicely into that school’s programs.

Consider grades K-12 as a series of laboratories for kids to explore what’s truly important to them. That’s how kids become motivated, and from there they seem to naturally pick schools based on their own needs and interests.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com