A name-brand school cannot validate your children’s existence, but you can. And that might make all the difference.
After several million news stories, by now most of us have heard of the FBI investigation into bribery of college coaches and admissions officers — “Operation Varsity Blues.” In a recent article in The Atlantic, the author examines these parents’ obsession with elite colleges as part of a broader phenomenon, one that has warped some high school students’ sense of their own purpose and self worth. One that has weaponized the very concept of acceptance.
In my work with students on their college essays, the idea of pressure and expectations comes up a lot. I have always told my daughters that they need to define their own path, then pick colleges with courses and cultures that are in line with it. They need to make the school fit them and not the other way around. But many students hear the opposite from their parents.
One kid in particular comes to mind. He was a top student at an elite, high-pressure prep school, taking nearly a dozen AP classes and working on even more side projects in his spare time, including a charity he founded to benefit underserved kids. When I told him that he as a person was more important than the brand name of his future college, he was confused at first, then relieved and energized.
He had been producing mediocre, highly calculated essays before that. But once he felt validated enough to express himself honestly, his writing became more confident and sincere — and effective. Ironically, by showing him that getting into an elite university was not as important as becoming the best version of himself, I may have helped him get closer to actually being accepted by one.
People in my role can either be part of the solution, or part of the problem. It’s a risk to tell students that they should first relax and think of who they want to become in life, then demand that the schools to which they apply serve their goals — and not the other way around. Some parents are deeply committed to the exact opposite message. They see college as a transactional equation: get in + get a degree = get rich. Pressure is part of that deal.
To be clear, I am by no means innocent of this myself — either in what I bought into as a student long ago, or in the messaging and choices that I have occasionally given my kids as a father. We all do our best, and on some level even the people in the Varsity Blues case probably thought they were doing that too. The work I do is made possible by parents with the same high hopes for their kids that I have for mine. But I believe I can best serve those parents and their sons and daughters by offering a dose of calm perspective along with sound writing strategies.
I believe college preparation is all about acceptance: parents accepting their kids for who they truly are, and kids accepting the challenge to start defining their own path to fulfillment. With that foundation, whatever college they eventually attend will not matter as much to their success as the positive energy they bring to that next stage of their lives.
Acceptance is not a gift conferred from on high to a fortunate few. It is a vital part of development for young adults — and more importantly, for parents. We should embrace it and give it freely, especially during our children’s transition to adulthood. There is transformative power in being accepted for who we are, by those we respect the most. With this kind of acceptance we can achieve great things, no matter which colleges invite us in or what choices we make.