I am in the business of helping kids get admitted to their dream college. There is always that delicate balance between supporting their ambitious goals and encouraging them to be kids. The colleges tell us that grades and test scores aren’t everything, but I know better.
I spent most of my career working at elite colleges where we denied students for the slightest imperfection. I kept my mouth shut and did my job to attract more students to apply knowing that only a small percentage would survive the process. Now that I am a mom of three wonderfully imperfect kids and work one-on-one with students and parents through the college admissions process, I have a different perspective. As I heard about another teen suicide last week, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer.
The student who took his own life had a full schedule of Advanced Placement classes—as a high school freshman. Why? Because he knew the reality of his high school’s antiquated ranking and weighting system. The school only gives special weight (added points onto the GPA thus improving the class rank) if a student takes APs.
Families figured this out long ago and began strategizing. They realized that if a student gets all A’s and one A- in a full course load of “Honors” classes in 9th grade, their child would end up ranking well below the students who got straight A’s in a non-Honors course load. In other words, the rigor of a full Honors curriculum as a 9th grader doesn’t help a student’s rank at this school. And that’s why that young man took five APs as a freshman.
Some may argue that a student isn’t defined by their rank or the number of APs they take. But they are when they apply to elite colleges. High schools feel the pressure of their community as tax payers want to see their children go on to great colleges. More APs are offered and students clamor to take them. Yet that is not enough in the eyes of elite colleges. The students then realize that they need to take AP exams to impress the colleges further. Yet that isn’t enough either. Subject Tests will also be expected from a high achieving student at most of the elite colleges. And yet, there’s more. ACTs or SATs. Volunteer work. Leadership. Impact. Awards. Perfect essays. Perfect interviews. Perfect letters of recommendation. Perfect everything.
Our kids are not perfect. Neither are those admissions officers and deans of admissions who judge our kids. Yet perfection is expected. As parents, we all know that perfection is attainable only until it’s impossible to sustain. Do we wait until our kids reach high school to speak out? Do we wait until our kids or someone we know reaches their breaking point? Waiting feels like I am back in that admissions office, speed-reading through applications, circling the imperfections and making life-changing decisions for kids in seconds.
I am not waiting anymore.
High schools can put limits on the number of APs that students can take and when. They can also eliminate every single bit of information they provide to colleges that serve as a ranking system. Only a handful of colleges actually require rank, and high schools can easily provide it confidentially to that one college on a student’s list. Decile, quintile, and quartile rankings are just as dangerous as actual class rank—so are the GPA ranges of each graduating class.
Colleges use this information as a crutch. It gives them a free pass to deny a student. If a student isn’t in the top 10% or isn’t in that top GPA range, they don’t have a prayer at an elite college even if they have straight A’s in the most challenging courses. This creates unreasonable expectations in our children’s young minds and hearts.
Parents can set limits on homework even if it means everything doesn’t get done so perfectly. Making sure our kids get a good night’s rest is still part of our jobs. Limiting the number of activities our kids do is also necessary. They don’t have to be a jack of all trades; they just need to be themselves. Parents need to speak up in their communities, to the school board, and to those individuals that expect perfection. When our kids see us using our voice to affect positive change, they will follow.
We can’t wait for colleges to change. We’ll be waiting a long time. We have to change.
A full on parental community effort is required. No more competing. No more strategy. We are in a familyhood of parents who love their kids. Let’s come together. Let’s speak out for our own kids, those we know, and those we don’t. All of our kids will benefit when we do, even the ones that look perfect from afar.
Mom of three. Founder of SaraHarberson.com, which provides personalized advice to college applicants and their families, AdmissionsRevolution.com, a free, on-demand video membership that demystifies college admissions, and Application Nation, a private Facebook group that teaches parents to think like an admissions officer.
Former University of Pennsylvania associate dean of admissions. Former Franklin & Marshall College dean of admissions and financial aid. Empowering students to achieve the best version of themselves through the college admissions process.