Now that the school year has started again, I've been thinking a lot about how my wife Sally and I can help our son, Clay, to be as successful as possible in the college application process. After all, he just started the all-important sophomore year in high school, and with our daughter Abby starting her first year of college, it's the perfect time to think about the lessons we've learned and how we can improve.
This is not a revelation by any means, but the whole process made me realize just how critical grades really are.
Of course, we all know on an intellectual level that our children's grades matter, but it's hard to appreciate their significance until you've gone through the college application experience yourself. While I emphasized grades with our daughter, Clay is definitely getting the benefits of my increased focus on them this time around (though he would argue that it's more like abuse!).
Not only are grades a critical part of getting in to college, they can also help you access merit scholarships and awards. Depending on the school, the extra investment you make in helping your child excel academically could come back to you tenfold.
Academic excellence is also a much better investment than other types of scholarships, like those for athletics. Many parents spend a lot of money on their children's sports through trainers and travel teams, counting on scholarships for later on, however, if you think about it realistically it is an uphill battle. After all, even if your child is an incredible athlete, there's only a slim chance he or she will be able to get a significant amount of money, if any at all. Worse yet, what if he or she gets injured or stops playing in the meantime?
Even if your child does get pursued by a college team, he or she will still need the grades to get in --and could probably get even more funding through additional merit scholarships than through sports alone. That makes academics a sound investment.
So in our case, while Clay is athletic, the reality is that even if he becomes good enough to play in college at any level, we are going to concentrate more on academics, as we always have. We've also helped him develop his talent with trainers over the years, but we know that the real investment needs to be on education.
In most cases, if you're looking to save money through scholarships, I would put a larger emphasis on academics rather than on athletics -- for most (not all) children, it's simply a better investment.
How we're tackling it
We're encouraging Clay to take challenging classes and to put in the time and effort required to succeed in them. We've told Clay that while he needs to show commitment and discipline, and in return we'll help him in any way we can.
As a parent, I think you have to be careful here. You don't want to overwhelm your child with courses that they end up struggling with. After all, we wouldn't want our son to end up like some of the stressed-out kids in the documentary Race to Nowhere. On the other hand, by being challenged he'll have an opportunity to develop their work ethic and grow intellectually.
It's all about finding the right balance between working hard and getting time to rest. As parents, we have to make sure that our children know how important studying is, while also having some downtime.
As far as SAT scores go, we signed Abby up for an SAT class and it was a great investment. In her case she shared a four-person course with a few of her friends, and it worked really well. There are a lot of options, though, and you obviously have to factor in what's best for your child's learning style and your budget.
Communicating with your kids
My family knows that once I get focused on something, you just have to do it. I've told both Abby and Clay that I look at their education as an investment: I'm willing to pay for it, but I expect something in return. In this case it's a commitment that their first priority is schoolwork and studying, after that is addressed, then they can enjoy sports, friends, Netflix, and Playstation/XBox.
In other words, Sally and I are ready to provide all the tools our kids need to succeed, but we're very open about our high expectations. After all, kids will be kids, and it can be hard for them to envision their lives ten years from now, especially when they'd rather be thinking about sports, friends, or other activities. It's our job as parents to help them understand the real, long-term priorities that will matter in the coming years and that will end up defining their lives. They might get it intellectually, but we have to help them see and keep on track with the big picture.
Now obviously, what we each do to help our own children might be different, but in general terms it's not a bad idea to emphasize academic success. Higher grades will help them gain admission into the school they really want, and it could even save you a great deal of money on tuition.
So think of this as a public service announcement -- a little reminder that, as parents, we need to stay focused on the big picture and on helping our kids do everything they can do to ensure a bright future. We're all juggling a lot of priorities, but to my wife and me, it doesn't get more important than this. Character, morals, and education first.