Navigating College Admissions

This time of year usually brings a collective sigh of relief from parents (and a furious rush from teens to have just a bit more summer fun), but it also brings inevitable crossroads. What classes should my teen take? Is Advanced Placement or IB worth it if they never sleep? Will colleges be impressed if they’re not an athlete or class president? What are the right choices for my student?

Unfortunately, there’s not always a clear “right choice,” but whether your kids are just entering ninth grade or are gearing up to start their college applications, there are plenty of best practices to keep in mind as you navigate the questions that arise throughout the school year.

Many parents and students see high school as a stepping stone to college. Take a moment to ask yourself why you take advanced courses, volunteer, or play a sport. If your answer is “to get into a good college,” you’re not alone—most students have a similar response. With this mindset, it’s easy to see how a rat race develops. Students want to have the best chance of admission, and, for many students, that seems to mean taking every advanced course possible and filling every hour with activities, regardless of whether they can handle the workload or catch a wink of sleep in between. Some students thrive in this competitive environment, but most don’t and need to find their happy medium. If you’re asking yourself what your student should do, first consider their goals beyond just getting into a good college. Do they hope to one day work in animation or design rockets? Do they want to own a small business or even just figure out what academically or professionally interests them? When you focus on their goals, you can help your children navigate the resources around them without getting caught up in a one-size-fits-all solution.

No matter what your student’s goals happen to be, you can help them choose suitable extracurricular activities and academic classes by remembering a few things:

  1. Focus on their strengths. We all want to be good at everything we do, but the reality is that few of us are. Some students are great at uncovering the mysteries of mathematics while others gravitate towards music, the written word, or aerial gymnastics. No matter their strengths, make sure to encourage your student to develop them. They’ll be more engaged when they can focus on their specific interests. This doesn’t mean they get to skip out on math just because they don’t like it, but if they don’t take to algebra, you can anticipate that they’ll probably never love calculus quite as much as rock climbing or learning about Greek mythology. Your student will benefit from learning a variety of subjects in high school, and they might grow from a slight nudge towards activities that push them out of their comfort zone, but don’t expect the same level of enthusiasm or achievement across the board, and leave plenty of space for them to pursue their interests (even if you don’t always understand them).
  2. Slowly, but steadily, build. Challenges are a good thing. An overwhelmed, sleep-deprived student is not. Your student can strike a balance by slowly building the rigor and intensity of their academics and activities. To increase academic rigor at a steady (and manageable) pace, your student can first take advanced classes that align with their academic strengths and then, if they can handle it, add advanced classes that will require more effort. When it comes to activities, encourage your child to take a similar approach. As they figure out what activities matter most to them, help them find ways to take on more responsibility, whether that’s by taking on leadership roles or by planning events and activities. If their schedule gets too packed, remind them that there’s no shame in stepping back from an activity that’s run its course in order to shift their focus elsewhere.
  3. Don’t compare. As long as there are other students around, it will be easy to make comparisons between them and your child. Resist the urge to do so and instead focus on helping your student build their strengths. Remember that no two students are the same and that comparisons simply build up anxiety and an unhealthy sense of competition. Comparisons can also keep your student from being able to shine in their own way. Even if every “successful” student at your child’s high school is in speech and debate, joining that club won’t make your student happy or successful if they can’t stand being in the limelight and would rather paint extravagant (and probably amazing) sets for the theater department.

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