I'm a product of the college-crazed niche of American society. The SAT prep classes, the rigorous extracurriculars, the Junior year panic and college essay-writing hysteria. In some ways (let's be honest -- most ways) this means I was both very lucky and very privileged. It truly is a privilege to have college guaranteed in your future and to come from an environment in which everyone is pushing for your success.
But there's another side to the story.
When I was in high school the pressure placed on getting into the "right" college was enormous. Kids were scheduling their 8th grade classes to ensure the desired placement in their 9th grade classes, which in turn would affect their 10th grade placements, which would impact their "crucial" Junior year. There were meltdowns if a person couldn't make their schedule work to fit in that extra AP. There was downright mutiny when a "legendary" college counselor known for her connections with college admissions offices left my school my sophomore year and parents worried about how this would affect their child's chances of getting into "the" school.
Sixteen year-olds were experiencing ulcers and hair loss because of stress. We were drinking gallons of coffee to fuel our school days, our sports (need that varsity letter!), our clubs (volunteer work looks great!), and our four to five hours of homework each night. And all with the absolute certainty that one misstep could mean we wouldn't get into the college of our choice, which would determine the job we would get, which in turn would affect our ENTIRE LIVES! Not getting an A in AP Bio could literally RUIN YOUR LIFE!
Now, as a functioning adult over half a decade out of college who has met and worked with many happy, successful people who did not go to top 10 institutions -- people who spent a lot of their high school days (gasp) hanging out with friends and being okay with the occasional B or even (the horror!) C -- I wish I could go back in time, sit myself and my parents down (and my friends, and their parents, and my teachers, and my guidance counselors), and just say, "Everybody, chill."
Looking back, I genuinely find it all exhausting. The lack of sleep, the stress, the anxiety perpetuated by myself and everyone around me. It was only several years out of college that I realized this was not in fact the normative experience for most people. That there are parents out there who are not obsessed with the college their children attend and who are content with the knowledge that things will more than likely work themselves out.
So this is my plea to parents: Please, please do not drink the Kool-Aid. Do not be a part of the mass hysteria when it comes to the college admissions process. I have friends who went to Ivys, to a slew of elite liberal arts colleges, to large public universities, and to tiny unknown state schools that were the only places they could afford -- and happiness and life satisfaction do not seem to correlate to college choice in the slightest. In fact, it's my friends who were raised in the pressure-cooker environments of my own childhood who are often the least happy, the least able to enjoy life, and the most likely to be neurotic.
Now don't get me wrong -- I'm not telling you to encourage your children to slack off and underperform. Quite the opposite -- kids need their parents to guide them and to keep them thinking about the long-term when the short-term (i.e. playing video games or going to a sleepover) might be their #1 priority. But this is exactly my point -- they need you to guide them. And this means not getting caught up in the college mania yourself. Let your kids know you expect them to work hard, but also make it clear that the college they attend does not have the power to ruin or save their lives. Give them the much needed perspective they might have trouble seeing for themselves. Because let's be honest, your child will be fine either way, and don't do them the disservice of letting them believe any differently.
And sometimes this might even mean putting your own ego on the back burner (cut to much less secure parent bragging about their son or daughter's college placement around the water cooler). But please, take it from someone who has been through it and come out the other side -- having a healthy perspective is so much better for your child in the long run and will do so much more for laying the groundwork for a happy life.
And isn't that really what it's all about?