Contemplating College Admissions

My husband and I took our daughter on her first college visit last week. We were on spring break and for once, I was able to take the week off with my family (thank you sabbatical!!!!). There’s a great small college near where we were staying and we decided to drop in and check it out. She’s only a sophomore in high school but we thought it might help make the process more real for her.

The school is a small liberal arts college and one of the most progressive in the country. I think they top somebody’s “most vegan-friendly” list. The students were diverse and interesting, the class sizes were small, and the setting was beautiful. Our daughter was blown away – “Wow! Are all colleges like this?”

Well, in a word – no. I had talked to my daughter about what things were most important to her in thinking about her college experience. I suggested we visit this college because I knew that it matched a lot of her categories.

Choosing a college is one of the first real adult decisions that teenagers get to make. Where you go matters. Success in college largely depends on making sure you end up at a school that is a good fit for you – socially, academically, culturally.

For traditional age college students, those years between 18-21 that are spent at college are critically formative years that help to shape who you will be in the world as an adult. Hopefully, it is the time when you figure out what you want to do with your life and what brings you joy. The people who are around you and the mentors and professors who teach you will have an enormous influence on you as you are figuring these things out.

These days, there is a lot of pressure associated with choosing a college. Much of that pressure is related to where you go to school. Did you get into your “stretch” school or are you resigned to your “safety”? In many ways the very language we use to describe the process is setting kids up for disappointment. I found myself using this language and immediately wishing I hadn’t.

I don’t remember much about my own college admissions process. All the colleges I looked at were small Presbyterian schools. I don’t remember researching schools or making a list. It’s likely that most of the schools I looked at were simply colleges that my parents recommended. They had both gone to “good Presbyterian” schools and they probably knew more about those schools than many others. In the end, I chose between two “good Presbyterian” schools – Rhodes and Davidson. They were different schools that would have offered me different learning environments and different experiences. I have no doubt either would have been a great college experience.

I want our daughter to be more actively involved in choosing her school than I was. I’m encouraging her to research schools and think about what it is she wants in a college experience. I also told her that choosing a college is a lot like choosing a life partner – there are a whole lot of potentially really great choices out there – there is no one perfect match.

I’ve actually discouraged her from thinking about the Ivy’s. As a college professor, I know that there are amazing faculty at many, many colleges and universities around the country. And, call me crazy, but I still think academics should be the central factor in choosing a college and the primary focus while in college. Finding the right school is about finding a school where you can get a good education and find or make a place where you belong.

We push our daughter to do her best in school and we sometimes have to nag her to keep up with her homework. We support her in the extracurricular activities that she enjoys and encourage her to seek out opportunities that will challenge her and help her develop real world skills (like volunteering in a local veterinarian’s office and at the local science center).

My philosophy as a parent has always been to NOT put my kids in activities unless they ask to do them. This has worked out well for our kids who have experimented with several activities and really pursued the ones that they enjoy. It was a little trying with our older daughter who only wanted to read for years on end. In the end, she discovered a passion for singing and an outlet for her love of animals. As a parent, it feels good to know she is pursuing her own passions for the right reasons.

I hope the college admissions process will be the same for her. There are so many places where she can get a good college education and grow into her own as an adult. In the end, the only ranking that really matters is the top ten list she develops. I’m advising her to keep her “stretching” confined to her pre and post-workouts.

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