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I Don't Understand High School Today

There is something slightly hysteria-inducing about seeing my oldest graduate from 8th grade. It’s not that I’ve loved watching him muddle through the last three years. Middle school was as awful as I remembered it. The kids were just as crass and insensitive as they were in the 1980s, only now they have texting and so can be crass and insensitive more quickly and more easily, on into the after-hours. And this is said as the mother of a kid who had friends and a good social life.

No, we will not miss the pleasures of middle school.

RELATED: Making the Jump: Middle School to High School

But high school is a different kind of beast. It’s the time of transcripts and test scores, of extracurriculars and community service and “meaningful contributions to society.” It’s the four years that college admissions officers will one day scour as they try to decide whether or not my kid deserves admission to their hallowed institution.

I wish I could say that any decent institution would be fine, as long as we can pay at least a good portion of the bill. But it’s more complicated than that. And I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around all that goes into gaining admittance to even a Division I school, much less anything beyond.

This is a boy who works very hard at his school work. When he gets a big assignment, he charts out the amount of time he will need to put into it, and then, unlike his mother or father, finishes the project at the very latest by dinnertime the day before it is due. He studies for his tests. He does all his homework, unprompted. His dad and I watch him in amazement. We didn’t teach him any of this, because, ahem, this was not our academic trajectory. “I see,” I told my husband one night recently. “This how the A students did it.”

Great grades and a great attitude should be enough, but I know it’s not.

Back in the day—back in my day—Liam’s good grades would have ensured him a spot at UC Berkeley, the top public university in our home state of California. I know this because I went there, and my transcript showed nearly as many B's as A's.

Today, though, the bar is much higher. The grades must be perfect, I’m told, and the test scores as well. Then there’s the rest of the application, which apparently they do read these days—again unlike the past, when admission was a simple math equation (multiply your GPA times 1,000 and add it to your test scores; if the number meets or exceeds the school’s target for that year, you’re in).

And I’m not even talking about Stanford or the Ivies, which other parents tell me have even higher admissions standards, and which we can’t afford anyway ... sigh.

RELATED: Why Community College Is a Smart Move

So here I sit, watching him slave away over his assignments and thinking, wow, what a kid, he deserves some kind of a medal for this. Great grades and a great attitude should be enough; but I know it’s not. My son, who likes nothing more than balance, would probably be best served now by piling on outside activities until the point at which he either a) crashes, or b) gets admitted to the educational institution of his choice, or c) both. I find myself perplexed, uncertain about what I should say, how hard I should push, or how often I should just sit back and leave well enough alone.

How do you manage this classic parental conundrum (college prep edition)?

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