Steve Baskin

S'mores and More

Preparing Teens for College

An Alternative Approach

Posted Sep 01, 2013

Earlier this summer, I was asked to speak at my 20th Harvard Business School reunion. The organizer requested that I share “some thoughts on parenting”.  I was not sure what messages would be helpful or interesting, so I started talking to a number of friends.  They suggested that I talk about children and college.  After all, my fellow alums and I have children that are soon to enter college. 

What I concluded was a little discouraging to me.  After numerous interviews and readings, I came across two unexpected ideas that result in an odd and sad irony: many parents are desperately striving to create lasting advantages for their children by getting them into the “right” college, but they may be creating long term disadvantages instead. 

Let me explain. 

Since I work with hundreds of teens each year, I see a tremendous about of focus placed on the college application process.  Parents fret every grade and encourage extracurricular activities that will look good to an admissions department.  No one enjoys this process, but it is generally accepted as important and necessary.  

It is almost an article of faith that getting into the “right” school is a ticket to long-term success and happiness.  No one actually says that, but parents’ actions certainly suggest this to be true. 

Here is where the first unexpected idea comes in.  

In 2007, Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist and his fellow researcher Stacy Berg Dale released a study with surprising results.  Students who were admitted to an Ivy League school but instead attended state schools had the same income as students that actually attended the Ivy League school.  Actually, the Ivy Leaguers did have slightly higher income in the first few years, but there was no long-term difference at all.  None.  Despite the exceptional facilities, faculty and connections, the Ivy League education did not predict for greater income or success at all. 

[Note: this was an awkward study to share at a Harvard reunion.] 

It seems that much, if not all, of the herculean efforts put into the college application process (including selection of extracurricular activities, test prep courses and extra summer school) might be misplaced. 

But the efforts are not just misplaced, they might also be harmful.  

I have seen families where the drive to get into the preferred colleges truly becomes an obsession that often starts as early as elementary school.  It places extra weight on every grade, every test and every activity.  Parents are worried and stressed that their children will not get the success and advantage that they desire.  This stress is passed onto their child. 

This interaction is not fun for either party, but it may create meaningful problems as well.  Consistent exposure to stress and cortisol (the stress hormone) impairs the immune system and reduces emotional resilience.  Sustained exposure over time is associated with increased rates of depression, divorce and substance abuse later in life. 

So loving and committed parents may be creating long-term challenges for their children as the result of their efforts to provide them with long term advantage.  

As I noted earlier, this is a both sad and ironic. 

So what should a parent do?  I am certainly not endorsing a laissez faire approach to parenting in which children are allowed to do “whatever makes them happy”.   No, I deeply believe in the need to be active and involved with your children.  I also know that quality parenting can increase the chance of a successful future life for your child. 

With this in mind, here are my recommendations:

  • In academics, worry less about results and focus more on process.   In other words, help foster a strong work ethic and good thinking skills.  Work ethic and metacognition are both skills that can be fostered through positive reinforcement and modeling.  If your child is working hard and thoughtfully, s/he will get the best results possible.  Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets is the best source for thoughts in this area. 
  • Allow your children to select extracurricular activities that interest them.  This is not without constraints. Mastering a favorite video games does not count.  I am a fan of saying “in our family, we each do something athletic and something creative, but you can choose which activities you want”.  In this way, the child is engaged and more motivated.
  • Avoid overscheduling.  Spreading a child too thin can reduce sleep, free play time (important for developing independence and creativity) and family/friend time (which helps foster emotional intelligence).
  • Make sure your child gets at least 8.5 hours of sleep.  Research by Dy Kyle Wahlstrom suggests that A students get 15 more minutes of sleep each night than B students, who also get 15 more minutes of sleep than C students.  The brain consolidates learning at night and strengthens executive functions.  If schoolwork and extracurricular activities reduce sleep, they are more harm than help.
  • Spend less time fretting about what college your child attends.  Help him or her find a school that is a good fit, even if it is not the highest ranked school by US News and World Report. 
  • Think less about getting your child into college and more time getting them through college.  I see too many high school students with great resumes who lack the independence or self control to thrive away from home.  Find away-from-home experiences that cultivate these skills; like summer camp, Outward Bound or travel programs.