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What Parents With Young Kids Need to Know About College

Photograph by Twenty20

When my son was accepted to his first choice college right before Christmas break, I let out a sigh of relief from a breath I’d been holding for, oh, 13 years. You know what I’m talking about, right? It starts when you send them off to kindergarten and stalks you right through 12th grade—the feeling that your kid might not be smart enough or motivated enough to get into college.

Or maybe you see his talents that others completely miss. Or perhaps your child and standardized testing don’t get along, so how will he ever muddle through the SAT unless he starts test prep in eighth grade, maybe sooner? In fact, is it ever too early to start test prep?

I know. It’s overwhelming. But I’m here to tell you to chill. Seriously. If your kid wants to go to college, he’s going to college, maybe even a good one. Let me explain.

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I live outside of Boston, Massachusetts in the shadows of Harvard, MIT, and about 35 other institutions of higher education that contribute to this being one of the smartest pockets of the state in the smartest state in the county. (Almost 45 percent of adults in Massachusetts have college degrees.) The academic competition is as thick as the Boston accent around here.

Still, in every senior class there is a range of students from the ultra-brainiacs to the kids who just scrape by. And all of them get into college. Yes, all of them, even the ones with more C’s than B’s, a scant list of extracurricular activities on their applications, and test scores far below average.

How do I know this? Because the guidance counselor said so, and I’ve seen it myself.

And why do these kids get into college if they aren’t great students? Because there are about 4,000 colleges in the country with a range of requirements, and at least one—if not several— are a good fit for your kid. Any guidance counselor deserving of the job title will help your son or daughter find that fit. You’ll help too by looking online and visiting a few schools over the summer.

Just to be clear, the insanity around colleges doesn’t exist because there are too many qualified students and not enough colleges.

Now that I’ve been through it, I realize the process is not actually diabolical, but we parents are making it so by panicking. Oh my gosh, he got a C in math! There goes his chance of getting into college. Or, He isn’t much of an athlete or a musician, so that’s a deficit. Or, he’s 16 and has never had a professional internship!What to do?!

Well, guess what? He’s still going to college!

Just to be clear, the insanity around colleges doesn’t exist because there are too many qualified students and not enough colleges. It exists because the tippy top students in the country are trying to get admitted to the tippy top colleges, and there simply isn’t enough room for all of them. That creates the panic.

Is your child in that two percent of top students vying for a spot at Stanford? Well, that’s a whole different level of competition, and, yes, maybe you should start test prep now. But I’m going to assume that’s not the case.

Speaking of test prep, I’m going to tell you something else. You know those test scores that have you in knots? Well, relax. There are now hundreds of excellent test-optional schools. And that list is growing every year because colleges and universities have finally figured out that wealthy kids have huge advantages when it comes to test prep, and a student’s transcript is the real reflection of his or her ability to succeed at their school, not a single number. So, if your kid doesn’t excel on tests, they'll still have great options.

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My son got into his choice school with imperfect grades and no test scores. He brought personality to the interview, wrote an engaging essay and showed a lot of passion on his application. Was that the only school for him? Certainly not! But he feels happy to be going there, and that’s what matters.

It’s time to get over the idea that your kid has already blown their future because they can't read by the age of three, or do algebra by 5th grade. That idea has infected our culture, spinning many concerned parents into an unnecessary state of fear.

So stop panicking about hypothetical rejection and teach your kid to be a thoughtful, interesting person who can look a college admissions officer in the eye and say, “This is what I love to do, and this is what I can bring to your school.” Encourage them to find a university where he can learn, explore, make friends, have some fun and find their path.

You'll never need a Stanford sticker on your car, but at some point your child will need a learning environment that supports and challenges them. And believe me, there are plenty of them out there.

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