Your Kid is Not Going to Harvard – and That’s Fine!

Bottom line – your kid is not going to Harvard. Or Yale. Or Princeton. It’s okay. You can face it. Honestly, you’ve probably had a sinking feeling that this may have been the case all along. I know the crusader parent that you are has been charging toward Ivy League ever since your daughter was put in the “gifted” program in second grade.  All of the boxes are checked; volunteer, leadership, student council, state scholar, tri-athlete. You (and of course your kid), are loath to give up now!

But wait, you say, my daughter got a 34 on the ACT and is acing three AP classes. She has a 4.2 GPA on a 4.0 scale, she is on student council, is the captain of the Lacrosse team and is in the marching band. All of her teachers and coaches LOVE her, and the principal knows her by name! Yep, this probably means she is a lovely person with a bright future at a great university. Also, she most likely will be rejected by top-tier universities. In the end, applicants like her are a dime a dozen. She is a smart, rich, suburban, kid with the advantage of an upper middle socioeconomic upbringing.

Before we go on, first I have another news flash for you: your kid will be fine – and then some!

The over-emphasis that schools, parents, neighbors, friends, aunts, store clerks, and students themselves place on attending “the school of your choice” is doing our children a disservice. More important that perusing the “top” school, the emphasis would more wisely be placed on finding the “right” school. The narrow focus on admittance into the most elite school eliminates consideration of many viable and preferred options that may indeed be the better school for her.

But wait, MY kid has the lead in the school play (as a junior!) He is fluent in two languages, got a 31 on the ACT, plays the flute, runs an acting camp for inner-city youth each year (with the help of his Aunt who works there), he doesn’t drink, enjoys adult company, has a diverse group of friends, attended the Woman’s March, and wears eye-liner. Sounds like a really cool kid that I would love to share a cup of coffee with, but unless he wrote for, or starred in, a Broadway production, Ivy League is off the list.

But my kid is Malia Obama! Oh. Okay……Yep. You’re in.

But my kid was shot by the Taliban, survived, and is now an international diplomat….Malala? Fine, Oxford it is.

You see where I’m going with this. Those students who attend Ivy League schools have been on a different playing field all along. These universities seek students who have already had a hand in changing the world. Many high school applicants (with the help of their parents) are not showing evidence that they are changing the world, but that instead, they are conforming to the world. These applicants display that they can “check boxes” and do it extremely well.

Let’s look at the numbers. The admission rate for Ivy League schools hovers around 8%. Hmm. Ninety-two percent of applicants are rejected. Yes, your kid is highly qualified. Yes, your kid will be rejected. This is especially true for those who live in the Midwest. Less than 3% of the highly qualified students of Illinois make up the freshman class of Ivy League schools.[1]  These stark numbers have to do with the established relationships between Ivy League admission offices and local high schools in the eastern part of the United States. It is not about the quality of the meticulously curated student resumes.

So what to do, give up? Absolutely not! Your kid is awesome and has much to offer this world. The right college for him is the college that fits who he is now and will challenge him to utilize his talents to shine (and eventually earn a living as well!) How many times have your pleaded, “I just want you to be happy.” Elbowing your kid into a highly competitive, elite academic environment for the wrong reasons is counterproductive to his happiness and his success.

Now, wait one second! You say, not ready to give up yet.  My kid really is an incredible student who truly loves to learn. She is an academic through and through! I do want her to be happy, and she needs a competitive academic environment to be challenged.

I agree! Some students thrive through academic challenge and absolutely love school. For her, there are many options outside of Ivy League that are prestigious and competitive. In addition, she may start in the honors program of a less-exclusive school and save the big name university, and big-time tuition for her masters or doctorate level work that surely will be in her future.

Just as the hope of playing for the Bears someday, most parents realize, that Harvard may have been a bit of a pipe dream. Lo and behold, there are real and wonderful options out there: Big Ten schools, small liberal arts schools, community colleges, state schools, trade schools and the military. There is an outstanding resource called Colleges That Change Lives that is a must for anyone looking at colleges. I also recommend Frank Bruni’s, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.

Find the right fit.  This is the concept that so often gets lost. Students get distracted from their true talents, and some parents get so off track that they find themselves acting in desperate ways. Helping your student can be a slippery slope.

I know of a high school student who sat for the ACT ten times in order to achieve a perfect score. It worked. He received a special award upon graduation. Yet he was not admitted to an Ivy League school. I’ve also heard of  cases where parents out-and-out write the college essays for their children. I don’t mean that they edited or offered sage advice. I mean they legit wrote the essay. I even heard of one college student at an elite school who sends her homework assignments home for her mother to complete.

I see these actions as a “parenting fail.” It undermines your child’s self-efficacy, condones dishonesty and engages in plagiarism at a critical time. Your child is learning how to conduct themselves in the larger world.  If you ever find yourself sitting down at your computer to begin writing your child’s admission essay, step back and honestly examine your example. Some things can’t be undone.

The good news is that when your child writes their own essay, they will undoubtedly be accepted to a school that “fits” him or her. If your child attends a school that is well-matched to her academic needs and her financial realities, she will be more than fine. She will thrive! And though you may not have the honor of receiving the “parenting lifetime achievement award” that I heard comes with Ivy League acceptance letters, your kid will be happy. And, guess what, so will you!

[1] Ivy League Proves Elusive for Illinois Students


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