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If you have a college-bound kid, I know you’re feeling it. The anxiety. The competition. The intensity. The bombardment of well-meaning but sometimes conflicting advice from other parents. I almost lost my mind trying to keep up with the list of do’s and don’ts of college admissions.


The fact is, requirements vary radically across campuses. Some schools focus on the SAT, some on the ACT, some on both. Some want stellar essays, some really don’t care.

But there’s a few general parent misperceptions swirling about that are worth correcting.

Colleges want “well-rounded” students

They still do. But colleges prefer students who are a combination of “angular” (focused in one area) and “well-rounded.” Translation: “passionate.”

As a general rule, incoming freshman should have a number of extracurriculars (but not a ridiculous amount) that are somewhat related.

“Beyond the most selective colleges, well-rounded students are still being told that they are welcome, but they are warned not to get involved in too many activities,“ writes Fred Thys in his Boston NPR piece, “‘Well-Rounded Versus Angular’: The Application Colleges Want To See.”

I pushed my daughter Taylor to join a variety of clubs in high school to fill in her glaringly thin college resume. But college admission offices were probably more interested in her obvious passion: kids.

She took four years of high school early education classes (which included being a teaching assistant at the onsite preschool), volunteered as a camp counselor for three years, joined Best Buddies to assist special needs students at events, and baby sat for countless families.

It’s a good idea to encourage your elementary and middle-school child to try out a variety of extracurriculars to get a feel for what they like and don’t like. But once they find a passion, encourage them to join clubs and activities that are at least loosely related (e.g., 4-H science + engineering club + robotics competitions).

“My perspective is that there has been a shift from, ‘We want a kid who is so well-rounded they check off 25 boxes,’ to ‘We want to know what you’re passionate about,’” said Stephanie Bode Ward, mother of a senior at the Boston Latin School.

Lots of advanced classes are a good idea

Of course kids need to be challenged. Lost potential is tragic and gifted kids can fall through the cracks. But advanced classes – the wrong ones or too many – can backfire.

“If you are truly interested in the subject, there’s a good teacher and you’re surrounded by other motivated students, then you’re probably going to have a good experience from taking a more advanced class,” explains Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Pope reviewed more than 20 studies on advanced placement (AP) courses. “But if you’re pushed into it without good preparation and without a safety net in place at the school to help you if you get in over your head, then it may be more harmful than helpful.”

The second week of Taylor’s sophomore year in high school, she told me her AP American History was so ridiculously hard she guaranteed it would lower her GPA. So she dropped down to honors-level instead. Her work ethic has always been strong, so I knew she wasn’t just being lazy. She was being strategic to protect her GPA.

Encourage your kids to take advanced classes, but be sure they set themselves up to succeed. Trust their instincts. Feeling overwhelmed isn’t the same as being a slacker. An academic schedule that is unduly difficult might sabotage your child’s high school transcript, or worse, harm her emotional and physical well-being.

For some kids, taking all advanced or college-level classes is the right work load (if they don’t have a ton of after school activities). But for others, it’s a guaranteed recipe to lower their GPA and increase stress.

“Many high-achieving high school students are really stressed out,” says Pope. “They have a lot to do between extracurricular activities and homework and trying to get the sleep they need. They need to be prepared for what an AP course involves. The extra tests, extra homework, on top of an already demanding schedule, can be brutal. And a very low grade on your transcript from an AP course may hurt you more in the long run than not taking an AP in that subject at all.”

Skipping grades and starting college early is bad for kids

We all know children who skip a grade (or two). They leap frog over their peers and start college early. But is this a good idea? It depends.

“There are two sides to every coin,” says Susan Assouline, co-author on the report, “A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students”. “One side reveals that acceleration is the most effective intervention for students who are ready for challenge and advanced curriculum.

“The flip side isn’t as shiny. Students who are not challenged become disengaged from school and their joy of learning goes away. Skeptics would have us believe that acceleration is not good for students. They will have gaps in their knowledge, they won’t make any friends, they won’t be able to keep up, or it’s a very costly intervention. None of these reasons are substantiated by research; they are nothing more than excuses.”

Flash forward to what this means for college students, and it gets a little complicated.

A 2011 study out of Bocconi University found that younger college students did better than their older peers. The younger students were less socially active so researchers think they spent more time hitting the books. Good news, right? Well, yes and no.

The younger students got better grades, but earlier psychological studies suggest being the youngest in a group may slow the development of personality traits such as self-esteem and leadership.

Here’s how 16-year-old college freshman Petra describes her experience:

“In comparison to my educational experience, my social life dwindled through murky waters. After I had written my op-ed for my college paper (admitting her age), I felt as though all eyes were on me. I had many people come up to me while I was walking around campus, asking how I felt being younger than most, and if I felt the pressure to fit in more now than ever. Being asked that question made me feel intimidated. Because one of my greatest struggles has been fitting into the ‘crowd.’

“…By the end of my second semester, I no longer felt guilty about writing my article. I surrounded myself with people who encouraged me and accepted me for exactly who I was. Without the support of friends and family, I would certainly have not felt the enthusiasm and motivation to attend college this coming fall like I do now.”

The bottom line is that kids need to be challenged to a level that keeps them engaged. But when skipping grades translates into being the youngest in a college peer group, students may feel tremendous social pressure to act like someone they’re not – at least until they find their identity and footing.

Starting college “Undecided” is undesirable

My sense is high school kids today feel intense pressure to start college with a major and a career in mind. There’s a practical argument to support this. Colleges appreciate focused, passionate students.

Also, being “undecided” can get expensive. Dan Johnston, Regional Director of Pennsylvania’s Higher Education Assistance Agency thinks entering college without a major is a bad idea. Students might take too much time (and too much money) to figure what they want to do.

Johnston recommends kids explore careers during high school and occasionally audit college classes. This way they’ll be ready to declare a major as an incoming freshman.

But a 2011 study out of Western Kentucky University found that students who begin college without declaring a major (and choose within the first two years) have the best chance of graduating in four years. Students who waited until their junior year did the worst.

Researcher Matthew Foraker suggests this is because early undecided students took time to explore majors, gather information and choose a field that genuinely interested them. While students who declared a major right away might have done so based on poor or incomplete information, or parental pressure. Many then drop out.

So is there a compromise between declaring a major right away or being undecided for too long? Absolutely.

Incoming freshman can take the required general education classes alongside a variety of electives (this might mean taking one or two summer classes on campus or online). At the same time, they can strategically narrow down their interests. Being strategic means students complete several free or paid online career assessment tools and regularly meet with a campus career counselor.

After a couple years, most students get a pretty good idea of majors (and possibly minors) that genuinely interest them. From there, they’ll naturally narrow down related careers.

After my daughter finished her freshman year in college, three weeks into her summer job as a camp counselor she told me she wanted to drop her Education major. She was 100 percent sure she didn’t want to be an elementary school teacher anymore.

After she told me, I full-on panicked. I told Taylor she wasn’t allowed to graduate on the five-year plan. I told her she had better figure out a major where she could actually get a job.

I thought, she’s already behind.

But behind in what? Underclassman are supposed to explore what they like and don’t like. When I went to college, that was called going to college.

So I got a grip and told her it was okay and, in fact, better to decide now to switch majors. Students do it all the time. In fact, half of all high school graduates change majors by their sophomore year. It’s not the end of the world or a guaranteed pathway to delayed graduation.

There’s no question the college admissions process has become ridiculously intense. Parents and students lose sleep over it. But rest assured there’s a spot out there for your student. It might not be her first (or third) choice, but in time it will be the right choice.

The most elite schools aside, most colleges and universities simply want passionate kids with a track record of decent grades, a solid work ethic, and a mind open to exploring who they are, one day, meant to become.

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