Disarming the Selective College Arms Race: 6 Strategies for Parents

08/26/2015 03:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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With our twin daughters applying to college this fall, I admit it's taken me several years to arrive, just in time, at a pretty good place: I truly believe they will get into schools that will be a good match for each of them.

With over 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in the US, no high school senior need be shut out of admission. But the national focus seems to be, invariably, on the dire statistics coming out of the most selective colleges, the ones with such high competition that even the most deserving student is not likely to garner an acceptance.

Sitting with other parents of rising seniors for a college admissions meeting at our Chicago high school a few months ago, many with kids vying for those coveted spots at elite colleges, the stress in the room was palpable. I could only imagine how this was playing out at home, with parental anxiety infecting already stressed out teens.

So how can we, the parents, help our kids navigate this crazy arms race of elite college admissions without feeding the beast? While we may be powerless to change the system, what steps can we take to make the best of a difficult situation, for our kids, our families, and our communities?

To find out, I interviewed 20 parents whose teens, from public and private high schools across the country, had recently applied to highly selective colleges. (My focus was not on critical issues such as financial aid or subgroups such as athletes; those warrant dedicated investigation.)

I asked these parents what advice they would give newly minted parents of high school seniors to reduce the stress and competition surrounding elite college admissions. They offered the following guidance.

1. HELP YOUR CHILD UNDERSTAND THE ODDS
When it comes to the most selective colleges, the odds are vastly against the applicant, no matter how accomplished, with single-digit admission rates this year at Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, MIT, University of Chicago, and Brown.

Yet year after year, the number of applications to top colleges grows--driven by these schools' aggressive marketing efforts, a growing pool of international applicants, and the ease of multiple submissions via the Common App--while the number of freshmen slots at these same schools inches up ever so slowly. This added competition only fuels more applications from high-achieving students wishing to "hedge their bets."

Admission rates to elite schools have also dropped sharply when compared to those we, as parents, faced years ago. Robin concurs, "There are so many parents I know who went to the Ivies or highly competitive colleges and assume that their just-as-smart kids can go too--but it's much harder to get into those schools today."

Naviance, a popular software tool used by high schools across the US, allows students to compare their GPAs and test scores to those of other students at their school who have applied to their colleges of interest. Yet "what Naviance doesn't show is that for the Ivies, there are ten or more similar students with a similar circle in that same spot [on the Naviance Scattergram], and they are only going to take one of those ten kids," explains Robin.

Ritu agrees, "Most children who apply to these selective colleges have all the numbers working for them; it's the other stuff that leads to a feeling of uncertainty and lack of control." Ritu is talking about the subjective parts of the application, such as the student's essays, counselor and teacher recommendations, and extracurricular pursuits. This puts additional pressure on these high-achieving kids: "Not everyone has cured cancer, started a multi-million-dollar business, or written a book," Susan points out.

2. MAKE SMART CHOICES BASED ON THOSE LONG ODDS
Understanding the odds at elite schools can help you plan a realistic strategy. Many parents emphasize finding a number of schools, including ones with a high likelihood of admission, where your child could see themselves and be happy.

As Matt puts it, "Don't fall in love with one school. A strong student will find an elite school to attend; it just may not be their dream school. And if you have a 2% chance of admission to an Ivy, don't apply to all the Ivies; it doesn't improve your chances. If you must, apply to one Ivy and make sure all of the others have higher probability."

Lauren emphasizes the lead role parents can play in setting the tone and expectations around the college process: "My best piece of advice is to focus 80% of the college search on finding a school that your child will definitely get into and will be happy to attend. Sure, apply to some stretch schools, but spend the majority of conversations about college talking about what that sure-thing school will be like, how much fun it will be, who else might be going there, and what impressive programs they have. That's what we did, and it removed the vast majority of the stress for everyone."

While not focusing on one "dream" school, parents also felt it was important to use the early decision option strategically. Many of the top schools now accept a significant portion of their incoming class via early decision, and the odds are often much better, even more so for legacies. For the incoming class of 2019, the Ivies combined had a 20% admission rate for their early round vs. 7% for regular decision.

Matt recommends that students apply early action (EA, non-binding) to a public institution at the same time as they apply early decision (ED, binding). He also cautions students should not wait to hear from their ED and EA schools before completing their regular decision applications. If they get rejected from the early round in mid-December, it can be challenging to turn around and write new applications due in early January.

Denise agrees it's wise to set appropriate expectations: "My oldest son's college counselor told us that he had a good chance of getting into an Ivy league school, but not to expect him to get into every Ivy he applied to. He said that elite schools should be considered reach schools for every applicant. As a result, we expected rejection and were not surprised when it came. Our response was: They have thousands of applications. It's not personal. They don't know you that well!"

3. CHECK YOUR OWN BAGGAGE AT THE DOOR
Did you go to a prestigious school and expect the same of your child? Were you shut out of the Ivies and want your senior to achieve what you were not able to? Is it important to you that your child go to a highly selective school and why? What in your past has shaped your views and what are you communicating to your child as a result?

Michele counsels, "As simple as it sounds, I contained my own anxiety for real. I absolutely made very clear that there were likely many schools where my son could be both academically successful and socially happy--and that if it did not work out, there would always be the option of transferring."

The more aware you are of your own baggage, the better you can support your child through a very stressful process. Lean on your trusted friends for guidance and support and seek out professional help as needed to better understand and address your own anxiety. As Marcie reminds us, "It's not about you, it's about your son or daughter."

4. REDUCE THE PRESSURE ON YOUR CHILD
The elite college admissions process is often fraught with pressure and expectation, hope and disappointment. Ritu points to the "monumental organizational task of keeping up with deadlines, compiling college requirements, writing essays, ensuring no typos, and making sure that nothing slips through the cracks--all this on top of keeping up with grades and extracurriculars, wanting to spend time with friends, and living with uncertainty."

Parents too can feel out of control. John explains, "On the one hand, I feel that we are forced to play the [selective college admissions] game because, for a lot of reasons, we do want our kids to attend the school where they (and we) believe they belong. On the other hand, I believe that there are ways to break with the system, but it takes a strong family to do that."

Despite this feeling of helplessness, there is plenty parents can do to alleviate the pressure on their high-achieving kids.

Don't start too early. Jessa* recommends you "ease your child into the college process, as they are all ready at different times. When we visited some schools the summer before junior year, our son had very little interest, as college seemed so far away."

Reduce the college talk. Julie advises, "Set a time each week, say Tuesday after dinner, when you talk with your child about college, and make the topic off limits the rest of the week. I think it can be tough as parent-child interactions can be at an all-time low at about this age, so it is hard when kids feel like this is all the parents want to talk about."

Don't push your kids to do things for the sake of college applications. The buzzword among colleges these days seems to be "authenticity." There is real value in that. Natasha* explains: "We don't believe in doing things to 'resume pad'; we believe in following one's interests. We don't believe in keeping up with other kids or copying what they have done; we believe in listening deeply to one's inner voice." Susan agrees, "Be proud of your interests and accomplishments and do your best to show them off. If you care about an activity and you write about that, a college will be able to see that. Don't try and be something you are not."

Let your child own the process. Natasha explains: "The application has to have a 17- or 18-year-old's voice. When parents get involved, it sounds wrong. Most important was for our daughter to explain who she is and to be evaluated on those terms as a potential match (or not) for the university where she wanted to go." Matt agrees, "No essay suggestions or drafting suggestions from you. Let them know you're there for proofreading and reviewing essays to ensure the child sounds like himself."

Spread out the testing and essay writing. Some parents advise students take the SAT or ACT the fall of junior year. Kids applying to selective schools are often taking a heavy load of classes junior year, not to mention end-of-year SAT Subject Tests and AP tests, so getting the ACT or SAT out of the way can be a relief. Other parents mentioned encouraging your child to write the bulk of their essays the summer between junior and senior years rather than waiting until the fall of senior year.

Above all, be your child's champion. Michele explains: "I think in order to avoid the stress and anxiety of the process, parents have to truly believe that their kid will be not only fine, but will be successful and happy wherever they land. Parents need to separate their own egos from their kids'. From the very beginning, I told our sons that it is their life stretched out ahead of them. I don't need them to attend an elite college for my esteem or place in the world."

5. BE PRIVATE ABOUT YOUR CHILD'S PROCESS
Parents overwhelmingly agreed it was best to err on the side of less sharing outside the family, and to encourage children to do the same. College talk among parents whose children may be vying for the same elite spots can only add to your anxiety. Your child will already be immersed in peer pressure and comparison around the topic so it won't help for you to fan the flames with the parents or to report what you're hearing.

Jennifer* was unhappy to learn what was happening at her child's high school: "When she was a senior, my daughter came home one day and said a peer was actually making a spreadsheet collecting data on who applied where. She was interviewing her peers to try to find out how many were applying to the selective schools to try to gauge her own competitive field."

One welcome change is around the timing of admissions decisions. Julie explains, "One thing colleges do now that makes a difference is that they don't release admissions decisions online during school hours. I think it helps a lot to be able to process the results on your own before you have to talk to friends."

But Jennifer questions a common high school tradition: "On a specific day in May, students are encouraged to wear their college jerseys or t-shirts to proudly showcase what college they will be attending in the fall. I always wonder, 'What about the kid who is not going to college? What do they wear on that day?'"

In the face of all this pressure, what are parents to do? For starters, they can support one another by reducing the college talk among their adult peers. Marcie explains how she coped: "Our general rule of thumb for my husband and me was to not bring the topic up. There was no upside to discussing it with other couples at the dinner table because everyone has different values, priorities, and children of varying talents."

Michele drew a hard line: "I literally did not talk about any of the details of my son's college process with any of the other mothers, even those I am very close with. I simply said that my son was anxious about the process and asked me not to speak about it, so I was honoring that. I know that I ruffled a few feathers but your kid's wellbeing has to come before your friends' hurt feelings."

Equally important is not to ask your child's peers where they are looking or applying. And be sensitive to asking even after the decisions are out, as not all kids may be happy with the results. Sanjyot advises we "refrain from social media, even after acceptances. Some kids get exactly what they want and others don't; social media only exacerbates the stress for all." Ritu concurs, "It is better to let the news filter out in the normal course rather than via a Facebook announcement, especially with early admissions, as there are a significant number of kids who do not get in early. The child's accomplishment of getting into a college is to be celebrated, but in a gracious rather than a boastful way."

6. PLAY THE LONG GAME
College is not the end all be all, but only part of the journey. It's important to take a long-term view: "Too many parents and kids have a shortsighted perspective and believe the getting in part is it, and that it's all smooth sailing after that," says Robin.

Sanjyot agrees: "Make sure your child really understands that the actual college they go to is no guarantee of future success. As my oldest son told his younger brothers, 'after high school, no one will ever ask you your SAT scores again. They don't matter one bit in college and in the job world.' Maintain perspective and just recognize that it is a process and even if it turns out differently than you planned, there's plenty of time in life to find success and happiness."

Katie feels the singular focus on elite schools can backfire: "There are many, many schools that can be right for your child. Help your child pick a college where they can succeed. Prestige is pointless if you flounder or feel inadequate." Sanjyot agrees, "I have known kids who chose schools simply because of the name, only to be deeply disappointed in the culture of the school--they don't fit in, socially and culturally."

Robin describes her daughter's experience: "We've learned you do end up where you are meant to be. My daughter was waitlisted by one Ivy and rejected by a couple of others, and yet she's a rock star at the non-Ivy school she chose. She's done better job wise than some of her Ivy peers who have struggled to distinguish themselves. And, most important, she's happy!"

"This is an important decision but not life changing. Encourage your child to consider a gap year if you feel they may not be ready for college. This can offer a much-needed break after the stress of high school," says Susan. Other parents also remind us that, in the rare case that your child ends up at a college that's not a good fit, they can always transfer schools.

My hope is that we parents can play a lead role in disarming the selective college arms race. We need to help our kids understand how much of a crapshoot the elite college admissions process has become, how much of a choice our teens have if they broaden the range of colleges they consider, and how college is only one small step in their journeys to adulthood and their life beyond.

And Matt reminds us, "The process doesn't have to be 100% torture." Don't forget to inject some fun whenever you can. Enjoy your child while you visit schools, talk about the future, and spend time together.

Ritu aptly describes the opportunity not to be missed in your child's last year at home, "We talked a lot and embraced this time to learn about the young adult our son had become. We reinforced our family values as we spoke about the closing of one chapter and the soon-to-begin new chapter. Yes, surely there were tense moments filled with frustration on both sides, when we did not understand his choices. But overall, we transitioned into a stronger, happier, and more communicative adult relationship."


*Note: These names have been changed at the request of the contributors.

Find Hélène Tragos Stelian on her blog Next Act For Women, on Facebook and on Twitter