Parents: Stop obsessing about rankings and instead prepare your kids for a healthy college experience.
As high school seniors across Southern Arizona graduate, many university-bound students are finalizing their college decisions and getting ready to leave home. For many, this will be their first time away from parents for more than a week. How can parents communicate that they trust their children’s abilities and help their kids get ready to launch?
Parents send their kids many messages about the relevance of a college degree and the kind of major that will lead to a lucrative salary. It’s understandable that parents are worried about their soon-to-be college students and are striving to better prepare their children to start and finish college successfully. But parents are sending the wrong messages to their kids when they obsess over the rank of colleges and majors.
Working with high-achieving college students for more than 10 years, I saw how they invested too much in rank, from GPA to which department is better to how their school is better than another university.
I saw this fixation play itself out with one first-year student, who was a talented writer but ultimately earned a C on his essay because he submitted it late. He was so distraught over his grade that he ended up dropping the class. Had he turned in the essay on time, he would have earned a B+ … and would have had plenty of time that semester to earn an A with work that met its deadline.
When parents ask for advice on preparing their kids for college, I tell them students aren’t the only ones who need help managing this transition. So I have some advice—for parents. Here are some recommendations for how parents about talking with their children now and supporting them later for a positive college experience.
1) Don’t obsess about rank and pedigree. Parents can take the lead here in helping their college-bound students. There are studies that demonstrate that students who attend state schools do just as well as those who attend elite institutions, so parents can help their children have a more positive experience when they stop worrying about rankings.
2) Stress the importance of getting involved in something that helps your children think about more than themselves. Building awareness of others is a key factor in not only learning about ourselves, but in learning about how we want to make an impact in the world.
College can be a navel-gazing time, but it doesn’t need to be. So encourage your kids to think about an activity that will help them build a wider, more global perspective, and where a successful outcome is not based in their individual triumph, but rather in the raising up of someone other than themselves.
3) Encourage your child to seek out mentors. Don’t pass on the myth that only exceptional students will be plucked from obscurity by willing mentors. Most college faculty feel overwhelmed by commitments but still love interacting with students. Especially students who make it easy for them. So empower your kids by stressing that they are the drivers of successful mentee-mentor relationships. Talk with your kids about how they can find and cultivate a group of mentors so they get a well-rounded perspective on their college experience.
4) Embrace the B+. Fifteen years of college teaching taught me the beauty of the B+ student. The B+ student is not so preoccupied with perfection that they self-sabotage by avoiding class or turning in late work. She knows when to walk away from a paper or project that is finished. And the B+ student knows that sometimes it’s OK to turn in almost your best work (because it’s still quite good) and enjoy dinner with friends, a nice walk or a chance to socialize face-to-face with other students. Humans are an interdependent species, after all, and we need each other to survive.
5) Emphasize the importance of learning self-care practices. Exercise, getting enough sleep, and eating well are three obvious ones that come to mind. But again, parents, don’t pass on societal obsessions to your kids. (Stop harping on the dreaded “freshman 15”!) Instead, try to empower your sons and daughters to find balance between dedication to their studies, setting boundaries around socializing and respecting their bodies (in all forms). Even better, direct your students to one of the free mindfulness apps available like Insight Timer, so they can learn breathing techniques to help them calm their minds and choose healthy behaviors.
6) Know that your children are wired to struggle and to learn from that. We can’t insulate kids from the challenges in life. There are dangers in parents trying to do so. Our brains are wired to learn from mistakes, and the only way kids can do that is by “failing forward.” So communicate to your kids that you trust them and their abilities. After all, parents have all failed sometimes, too. Now is the time to let go and allow your children to fail sometimes, too.
The recent scandal involving wealthy parents bribing coaches and other university officers to gain college admission for their already privileged children highlights how our culture has fetishized college rankings. Rather than trying to clear your child’s path of all roadblocks, instead support your kids by reassuring them that they can pull themselves out of a mess all by themselves—and that they will succeed, too.