As a former admissions officer for two "elite" schools -- one Ivy and one West Coast Ivy-equivalent -- I am in a unique position to offer some insights for parents that may be of help in raising healthful teens. Exasperated as much by the reaction to a couple of recent teen suicides as I am to the acts themselves, I offer my views here not because I'm an expert in suicide-prevention: I'm not. I offer this post because we're all looking for some way to help our community's kids. My Facebook feed upsets me when people surmise that these suicides happened because of mental illness, or tiger parents, or school stress, or, or, or ... because we just. don't. know. I don't think any family from the last suicide cluster came forward with a definitive reason, and I doubt anyone did now. We don't know what drove these kids to take their lives -- but we do know what's hurting our kids now. In fact, this local teen, Martha Cabot, sums it up pretty well: "Parents, calm down."
I want to tell every parent reading this post that you need to assume, right now, that your child is not getting into Harvard no matter what he or she does. (And no, he's not getting into Stanford either, or Yale, or Dartmouth, or MIT. Probably not UC Berkeley either. No, I'm not kidding.) Your kid isn't getting into the college you think he is.
What? So-and-so's child is at Princeton right now? and got what on his SATs? and did those activities? Hmmm. Interesting. Sure, you can prove me wrong with some examples. And I can prove myself right with a hundred more. Stanford's rate of admission was below 5% last year. Do the math.
In the spirit of "I want to do something," I offer below some Q & A that I hope y'all read and take to heart. These are real questions asked by real parents of real kids I know within the past year. I didn't answer these questions at the time exactly like I did below, but I answer them here and now based on a combination of my expertise in admissions (noting that nothing I say here should be construed as official advice or information given on behalf of any school) as well as my experience as a community leader and parent.
And be forewarned: I'm going to be a bit of a wise-ass, 'cause we all need to calm down like Martha says, which also means "lighten up" in my book.
But also, I promise a reward at the end: questions that I wish people would ask me instead. And I think -- I hope -- it's some valuable stuff.
Q - freshman parent: "My child is taking honors math. Homework is three hours per night. If I ask for her to be pulled out of honors math, am I killing her chances of going to Stanford someday?
A - if your 9th grader has three hours of homework in one night for one subject, I call that a problem. This isn't a college admissions question; it's a question of time management. Your kid has, what, five, six academic subjects? Last I checked, there aren't 18 hours/night to do homework. Call the teacher. Call the school. Call me crazy, but don't put your kid in classes like that. Three hours of homework total in one night is a lot. WTH?
Q - sophomore parent: "My son is getting a B in English. What can I do to salvage the situation so that he still has a shot at the Ivies? Would it help to send him on something like an exotic summer service trip? Does that kind of stuff offset the grade?"
A - I note you asked how you can salvage the situation. You can't. Do you know why? You're not the student. Let me repeat that: You're. Not. The. Student. It's not your job. Your kid's grade is your kid's job, and, if it needs to be "salvaged," your kid has to do it. As for sending your kid to Timbuktu to milk one-eyed yaks for orphan food, Imma just roll my eyes at that and salvage myself from answering.
Q - junior parent - "So how much do grades matter? Do kids with Bs still get into the Ivies?"
A - grades matter. And kids with Bs still get into the Ivies. But your kid probably won't, because have you seen admissions statistics? They're dire. Let's keep it real.
Q - senior parent - "My kid is applying to 19 colleges."
A - okay, that wasn't even a question, but excuse me while I go scream into a pillow and maybe vomit.
Q - junior parent - "I had to sign a form to let my son take more than the recommended number of APs, but I had to do it because he needs to stay competitive."
A - that also wasn't a question, that was an excuse. Limits exist for a reason. And let's be honest here "he needs to stay competitive" is English for "I'm competing with every other parent because if my kid gets into Harvard I Win." If you're bragging about how hard your kid is working, preface it by saying "I'm making my child suffer on purpose." Let's all be honest here.
Q - freshman parent - "How many APs does a kid need to take to get into Yale? I mean, he could end up with 12 or 15 depending, but I'm hearing some kids have 22. What's a good target number?"
A - a good target number is zero, because your kid isn't getting into Yale. Seriously, did you not get this memo yet?
Q - I don't think I put pressure on my kid! Do you think I am?
A - Well, you do wear that Harvard sweatshirt around a lot, and your house is flying the Harvard flag (literally). You might want to think about toning it down so that you don't have to full-scale remodel when your child doesn't get in.
Okay, enough of the joking around; my point is made. (And I am not joking: those are questions that I am asked on a pretty routine basis.)
Here is what I wish parents would ask:
Q - how much sleep does my teen need each night?
A - at minimum, teens need nine hours per night of sleep for optimal health. (I'm not a sleep expert either, but I trust the Mayo Clinic.)
Q - so how much homework does that leave time for?
A - if school lets out at 3, and your kid needs to get up at 7 am, let's see ... that means he needs to go to bed at 10 pm, so that leaves 7 hours to do a sport or other after school activity, eat dinner, hopefully hang out a little, and do homework.
Q - my kid has more homework than 7 hours' worth, so what do I do?
A - act up. Call teachers. Bug the school. And if all of that fails, send your kid to bed anyway, and tell him you'll love him even when his teacher marks him down for unfinished work. You may be surprised what happens when you call a teacher and say "my son worked on this for two hours and still couldn't finish, so I sent him to bed." Oftentimes, it's a reality check the teacher needs and welcomes.
Q - my kid won't go to bed at 10 even if his homework is finished. That's too early.
A - take away all of his electronics at 9:55 p.m. and charge them in your bedroom. Disallow screen time; remember, you set the rules of your house. If you say to go to bed at 10, your kid had better go to bed at 10. You're the boss. This is no different from when they're 2 and you're forcing a nap; your child needs rest, and if they learn while still in high school how to take care of themselves with proper sleeping habits, they'll be more successful when they do go away to school.
Q - everyone is signing forms to allow their kids to take more APs than are allowed. What do I do?
A - don't sign the form. See above. You're the boss. And while I'd like to assure you that taking two fewer APs isn't going to make an admissions difference, I can't do that. With so many schools having wee little admissions rates, nobody can. It's kind of a crap shoot. But kids taking beyond the recommended amount of APs doesn't end well. They have too much work, get too little sleep, and usually still don't get into Ivies. So it's still not worth it.
Q - where should my kid go to college if he's interested in X?
A - this varies, but I do wish that people would approach me to engage in meaningful discussion over college selection. Once, I appalled a parent who said her daughter is interested in sports journalism by suggesting U Florida, which remains highly regarded in that field. "A state school?" the mom repeated in utter shock. Let's all be open-minded here. There are a lot of colleges. And some of the best schools in subjects in which your kid's interested may not be Ivies. Keep open minds and create a list with a range of possibilities and options -- all of which your kid would love to attend if admitted.
Q - how much do grades and scores matter?
A - they matter, of course they do. But they're not all that matter. Schools could fill with perfect SAT scores and perfect grades, but they don't. If you want to see how your child measures up to any school, schools often publish ranges of scores and grades accepted.
Q - how do I motivate my child to get straight A's? (I wish, actually, the question was: how do I set reasonable academic expectations for my child?)
A - you don't. Encourage your child to do his or her best work. Check in often to feel out how much and how well they're learning. Offer support if your child is struggling. And when your child gets a B, C, or D -- or even if he fails -- don't overreact. Review mistakes. Ask the child to fix them, even if it's not for credit. Ask how he feels about his performance and what he might do differently next time. Never express disappointment, but it's okay to encourage improvement. There's a line, and you know it. Expecting A's is pressure. Expecting learning is awesome.
Q - my kid has perfect grades and scores. Doesn't that guarantee admission?
A - nope. Unfortunately, perfection is not so rare these days, especially in competitive school districts where GPAs exceed 4.0 because of APs or IBs. In truth, I'm pretty sure Harvard could fill with students with perfect SATs and 4.0s. It doesn't. Your kid being academically strong certainly matters, but numbers aren't all that matters. Perfection isn't a worthy aim, and it doesn't guarantee anything.
Q - I attended an Ivy. Doesn't this mean my kid is more likely to get in? Why shouldn't I hope for the same as I had for my kid?
A - it's a different world. Admissions statistics when you attended were more favorable to admission, and it was easier to get in without being perfect and absent a resume of accomplishments. There are plenty of practically perfect in every way "legacy" kids getting rejected from every Ivy. I hold an Ivy League graduate degree (my undergraduate degree is not), and what I tell my kids is that if they really want to attend an Ivy, there's always graduate school.
But there's another problem with this question: "shouldn't I hope for the same as I had for my kid?" Nope. You shouldn't hope for your kid to live your life. You shouldn't assume that because you went to Harvard, your kid has to measure up to that standard. Some of the most successful people I know here in Silicon Valley didn't go to Harvard, didn't go to college "on-time" even, or even didn't finish or didn't go. If you are a success who attended Harvard, Harvard doesn't get credit for your success. You do. Making the point to your child that you're a success because you love what you do and are knowledgeable in your field is more valuable than a credential from your school. (And if you don't love what you do ... are you really setting a good example for your child? does that have anything to do with your alma mater?)
Q - so many schools aren't accessible, including the UCs, even for kids who seem to have a good profile. What do I do to make sure that my kid gets in somewhere?
A - you don't do anything. Your kid needs to work with her school's college counselors to compile a realistic list of colleges to which to apply -- as well as other options. Sure, they can reach for some unlikely goals (e.g., Harvard); but there should be some on the list that are more sure bets than not (non-UC/other state schools, for example). Don't call these "safety schools." Your kid should be happy to attend any college on the list and should have compiled the list with their interests in mind: large or small? urban or rural? specific programs? And encouraging exploration of gap years, national service programs, etc. is a good idea too. Telling them that they don't need to go to college immediately (that you are flexible in the timing) helps to offset college rejections better than anything. They need to know this isn't a one-shot deal.
Q - what should my kid to do have the best shot at admission to a good school?
A - he should engage with his learning, do some things outside of school that he enjoys, and write an application that reflects who he is as a person, honestly (what he wants to say -- not what he thinks admissions officers want to hear). There is no cheat-sheet checklist of things that, if your kid does them, will garner admission assuredly. There are kids at Harvard who've done it all and kids who've done a lot less but are just kinda awesome kids. There's no secret sauce other than what's already in your kid.
Q - I didn't take your advice, and my kid still got into Berkeley. Are you often proven wrong?
A - sometimes, and happily so. Congratulations! Of course some kids still get into great schools. I'd be congratulating your kid just as much if she was about to begin attending Foothill Community College, though, or taking a gap year. Still -- your child certainly worked hard for that or for any college admission, and that deserves a big "hurrah!"
Q - how do I take pressure off of my kid?
A - don't tell them from the day they're born that Harvard is the best school, because, when he doesn't get into Harvard, he'll think he failed. Tell them all along that the best plan for them is the one that feels good -- maybe a gap year, maybe even working for a few years before college, as it's widely known that the best age to attend college is 26. If they do plan to go straight through school, encourage a good fit: an environment in which they want to live and learn for four years (or more -- college doesn't have to be completed in four years). Tell them that there are lots of options. And don't pin your own hopes and dreams to them. It's not your life, it's your kid's life -- and make sure she knows that you're proud of her no matter what.
If you want your child to be successful -- we all do! -- define success without attaching it to an outcome. Success doesn't mean that your child gets certain grades, scores, or college admissions. There is no "result" that guarantees success, or even happiness for that matter. For me, success is my kids thriving in a learning environment, being challenged but not made miserable, and making choices that help them to achieve their goals. But most of all, success is their self-motivation and self-acccountability absent my pressure. That carries over to the work force more than any grades ever will.
We can't tell our kids enough that we love them just as they are, and that we don't expect perfection. In fact, we don't even expect anything close. We need to tell them that when they screw up, we're there without judgement and with nothing but loving guidance and acceptance. We need to tell them that our expectation is for them to live fulfilling lives and that there is no achievement objective correlated with that. We need to tell them that we care that they're learning, and that grades don't matter as much as their engagement with the subject matter and how they feel about their performance. We need to accept that sometimes them doing their best is, actually, getting a C. We need to stop overbooking them for afterschool activities. We need to lower our expectations for academic performance. We need to make them sleep. We need to let them be children. We need to stop competing through them.
We need to hold our kids tightly, tell them we accept them as-is, will love them whatever happens in their lives, and then, collectively...
we need to let Harvard go.
Post-publication note: This posts seems to have reached a lot of people who have a lot of strong reactions to it. I think the comment that reached me most on another person's Facebook page is one from a parent who thinks I am encouraging mediocrity. The snarky part of me wants to tell the dude he's right, that I tell my kids "aim low." But the truth is, this post is far from encouraging mediocrity or "settling" for anything less than a child can feel good about achieving. As a Palo Alto parent, I am tired of our culture of 'achievement' as defined by grades, scores, college admissions, and the like. And I am unapologetic about that. I have worked with our community's teens as a coach, as a youth minister, as a mentor, and as a parent, and I encourage every kid to be their best self. That means being proud of their work, whether in the classroom, on the playing field, and/or in the world. Do I think they need to engage in competition for one of those 15 slots at Stanford (there is no fixed number, and I wouldn't know it if there were) by trying to outwit, outplay, and outlast (to borrow "Survivor" lingo)? Nope. And beyond that, there are going to be times when our kids just don't want to work hard because they're kids and continue to push boundaries. They're going to blow off studying for a test. They're going to fail something. Good. That's right -- I said good. Their mistakes teach them that actions have consequences and that their effort ties to their outcomes. We can't give them that with carrots or with sticks. They'll figure it out. They want to do well -- as they define it. (They know what's up with college admissions without us even getting involved, parents.) And the more they figure out for themselves, with no message from us other than "we take you as you are and want you to be healthy and fulfilled," the healthier our kids are going to be. I want nothing but the best for our village's kids -- for any kids-- and I stuck my neck out there with the post because I refuse to define the "best" as it has been anymore. The best for our kids is no more of them self-harming in any way, and I feel like we can alleviate some of that by changing our tone.
Thanks for reading this and for your engagement over what really isn't about college admissions but, rather, about our kids' health.