I’M NO STRANGER TO SALTY LANGUAGE, but my swearing intensified this past year as I supported my teen through the college admissions process — an endurance obstacle course that favors the privileged, frays student mental health, and leads to a narrative that college acceptances and rejections are indicative of a kid’s worth and future success.
We need to put this dangerous idea to rest.
I hold two beliefs about college admissions: first, there is no such thing as a “safety school” — every institution deserves respect.
Second, there are many, many places where a kid can thrive; the idea of there being one perfect school for each kid is false. And yet, this narrative persists both at a culture-wide level (hello,
Operation Varsity Blues) and in our communities. And it persists despite research suggesting the importance of looking beyond name brands.
One recent study tracked 28,339 students from 294 universities. After watching the students perform professional tasks for two months, and measuring all kinds of skills from the academic to the interpersonal, the study’s authors found only nominal performance differences between graduates of higher- and lower-ranked schools. And, the authors of the study write, the differences were “only on some dimensions of performance.”
There’s something that predicts learning outcomes, job satisfaction, and other measures of student success far better than rankings: how engaged students are in their classes and communities. A 2018 white paper by the Stanford-affiliated nonprofit Challenge Success concluded that factors including access to mentors, internships, and multi-semester projects are far more important than a school’s rank or prestige.
I believe it. Except for music class, I got C’s and D’s in high school, and could not do well on the SATs no matter how many practice tests I took. I was rejected from 10 of the 12 colleges to which I applied. I felt doomed, and judged. Though I had no reasonable right to believe myself above any school, I considered Wheaton College in Massachusetts a “safety school” and headed there already thinking about transferring to somewhere “better.”
Now, I often think about how lucky I was that Wheaton admitted me. On my printed acceptance letter, the admissions officer added a handwritten postscript to tell me that I had written a wonderful essay. As I proceeded through my first year and experienced the richness of mentorship and small classes, I realized I had hit the jackpot. My journey at Wheaton included internships (including being one of the college’s first White House interns), great academics, and countless community enrichment opportunities that helped me thrive and find my place in the world. I graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa and went on to get my doctorate. It was at Wheaton where I discovered my field of academic interest, thanks to my mentor, the late Grace Baron, who sat with me at a library computer terminal and suggested we do a literature search on music and psychology — a conversation that shaped my research trajectory from that moment all the way through completion of my postdoctoral fellowship.
I asked Julie Lythcott-Haims — a former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, and author of Your Turn: How to Be an Adult — what she saw in students who thrived. “Within the context of a culture that incentivizes students to go through rigorous motions to achieve narrow measures of success, the students who truly thrived were quirky, doing whatever it was their way,” Lythcott-Haims says. “Even if they were doing something on the well-beaten path, they knew who they were, what they wanted. They were humans with agency and they were going for it.”
So how do we raise kids who have a strong sense of self, interests, and motivation? The pieces of the puzzle are simpler than you might think and don’t involve elite training. And the road starts much earlier than high school.
Helping kids learn how to tolerate stress is crucial. Ned Johnson, coauthor of What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home, notes that the most important outcome of adolescence is not where kids go to college, but the brain they develop and carry with them into adulthood. “You want the brain to work hard and be tolerant of stress. And the only way to develop that is to try things that are challenging,” Johnson says.
Nor can parents pressure kids into being successful. Kids need to learn to work hard because they want to work hard. “Kids need to develop a sustainable model of motivation; one that isn’t driven by fear or bribes,” Johnson says. “A lot of parents don’t understand that if they actually lower the stress it will help kids get in the game and work harder.”
As parents, it is easy to let our anxious perfectionism make kids fearful, unable to tolerate stress or mistakes. “When we’re so determined that our kids arrive at a certain college or enter a certain profession, we are terrified of any mistakes they might make along the way,” Lythcott-Haims says.
But mistakes are crucial to development. “When we experience failure and fumbles, we have an opportunity to examine what we did, what went wrong, and what we could do better next time,” says Lythcott-Haims. “That is the definition of how we grow, and kids need to know that these things happen and their parents still love them.”
We are long overdue on a parenting reboot, says Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. Borba warns against pushing and criticizing kids — of any age — who are already struggling and feeling overwhelmed. “That approach puts holes in their safety net,” she says. Kids need to know that your love is not conditional on a decision in an envelope or some other achievement.
Borba notes that other crucial resilience-building skills include the ability to name emotions and adapt to situations, as well as seemingly ordinary things like developing hobbies, social skills, and a hopeful outlook on life. “Look for times when your kid is more eager, when they are joyful and excited to do something,” she says. “That’s what you want to nurture.”
Raising a child to adulthood takes many years, but the good news is that what kids need to thrive as adults — unconditional love, encouragement to find what lights them up, resilience, empathy, and meaningful relationships — are right within reach. And I can guarantee you that supporting your kid through this journey feels more joyful — even in the tough moments — than jumping through the hoops of the Common App and FAFSA.
And if things don’t go the way your child hoped, Johnson recommends validating feelings and showing your belief in them with language like, “I can see how disappointed you are and I imagine that really hurts. I am also confident you can handle this, rise above, and find other cool places to bring your talents.”
Like many families, we are in the season of waiting on college decisions. While I am eager to see where my daughter lands, I’m not worried. Her college list includes schools that offer the things that are important to her, and I know that she will thrive because of who she is.
Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster, and creative director. You can find her work at christinekoh.com and on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook at @drchristinekoh. Send comments to email@example.com.