True Confessions from a Recovered ‘College Snob’ Parent

I’m here to shamefully admit that I used to be one of “those parents” when it came to college admissions. What exactly do I mean by that? Well, let me start from the beginning.

Our first-born child, a daughter who burst into the world a month early, was cerebral from the moment she opened her eyes. She talked early, she read early, and she was prematurely skeptical of childish notions like Santa and the tooth fairy and had to be begged not to reveal those truths at school and ruin it for other kids who believed. 

I now have a new perspective on college admissions. (Shutterstock: ESB Professional)

School came easy to my oldest daughter

School came so easy to her. She was every teacher’s dream – always paying attention, working ahead, helping other kids, and obeying every rule. We never had to ask if she’d done her homework or studied for a test. Of course she had.

She was pulled out of regular classes for gifted programs in grade school, took every honors class in middle school, and practically every AP class her high school offered. You get the picture. 

From the very first parent-teacher conference in high school, we were told she should set her “sights high” for college. Ha! There was no need to give us that little push. We had been grooming her for many years. Some might say unconsciously (and consciously) “brainwashing” her to go to our own alma maters.

My husband and I went to “competitive” colleges

Like many parents our age, my husband and I had gone to colleges that might have been considered mildly competitive to get into, back in the 80s. If you had good grades, an OK SAT score, and some extracurricular activities, you got in. 

Fast forward twenty-five years and the landscape of college admissions had gone bananas. What the heck had happened while we were busy buying Beanie Babies and fretting over the language in certain Nickelodeon shows?

The colleges my husband and I went to were now considered to be in the top 25, according to the new Bible of all things college – the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges ranking. So those tiny logo high tops I had placed in my daughter’s nursery all those years ago were already setting her up with lofty expectations. That cute t-shirt my husband got her came wrapped up in invisible pressure to get into his “top school.”

I bought into the societal craze about college

By the 2010s, terms that didn’t yet exist when we were applying to college, like “highly selective”, “holistic review”, “yield rate”, and “early decision” were now everywhere and were living rent free in the heads of many American high school students and their parents. 

If you had a student who excelled in school, it was hard not to buy into the societal frenzy, and I bought in, hook, line, and sinker. My daughter, with her high PSAT score, stellar GPA, and all those activities was the prime target audience for all those schools sending big, beautiful brochures and dreams of strolling across an Ivy League quad. In order to have a successful life, she needed to get into one of those top schools, right? The budding college snobbery I’d somehow adopted because my alma mater was now lauded and highly ranked, clouded my reality and advanced an arrogance that my child deserved the same – or really, deserved better. 

We did ‘all the things’ that would help her get into a competitive school

So, we did all the things: paid for SAT prep classes, sought essay feedback from a college admissions counselor, paid for a summer academic experience that looked great on applications, and encouraged our daughter to run for a club leadership position. 

And all the things paid off. She got into a top ten college and oh, how proud we were. I tried not to verbally humble brag, but my inside voice was at times shouting with the superiority complex of a true college snob. 

We certainly thought our brainy girl would be fast-tracked to success with a degree that had that fine university’s name above hers.

So, then what happened?

First a brief rewind.

As is often the case, we were happily surprised and often humbled by our next child – the quintessential second born who breaks the mold and shakes things up. In addition to being a rambunctious boy, this kid liked to question every rule and do the bare minimum to get by in life, while smiling and charming everyone along the way.

Our second child did not take to school as easily as the first

There were no invitations to test for the gifted program, there were no prizes for reading the most books in his grade level, and there was an abundance of nagging to finish up homework and stop playing so many hours of video games throughout the years. 

Ahhh, so this is what it was like to have a “normal” kid! 

I honestly felt bad for him frequently during his childhood, coming just a couple of years behind the academic “golden child” and I had to readjust my expectations for his school experiences. Thank goodness he had his sports and his friends and somehow always managed to get decent grades, albeit not ones that brought those big, colorful brochures to our mailbox. 

We had to dial back the college talk

I quickly realized I would have to dial back the college snob vibes, and gosh, life just seemed so much easier. Our boy didn’t want to take any SAT prep classes, he didn’t want to join clubs just because they looked good on college apps. He didn’t stress about AP tests and couldn’t have cared less that there was no way he’d get into one of “our” schools. 

It was delightfully refreshing.

He applied to a handful of colleges, got into most of them, and decided to go to a state school where many of his friends were headed. Would the school’s name on his degree fast track him for mediocrity? Who knew, and he didn’t really care, so with that level of chill, I realized neither did I. He always managed to get by just fine and I had this deep conviction that that would continue.

Fast forward to today. 

Both of my kids loved college and both are ‘successful’

Both of our kids are now college and grad school graduates. Both loved (for the most part) their undergrad experiences and are content and thriving young adults. The one with the degree from the Top Ten school is no more “successful” than the one with the state school degree. In fact, if you go solely by salary, our son will likely be more financially successful in his career than his sister will be. 

In hindsight, I can now plainly see and fully understand that a degree from a highly selective university guarantees nothing. 

Attending one of those schools will place your child in proximity to highly regarded faculty members and other students who excelled at the unfair “game” of college admissions. In reality, that ensures zero success. In fact, it can make some kids feel intimidated and begin to experience imposter syndrome when they don’t reach the same level of success in college that they achieved in high school. 

Success does not depend on the college you attend

You’ll hear this repeatedly now because it’s the absolute truth. It does not matter where your child goes to college – their success will stem from their behavior once they are there. Grit, hard work, self-discipline, having an open mind, being flexible, and seeking out mentors will determine their path. 

We’ve witnessed so many of our kids’ friends do amazing things after college. We’ve witnessed some drop out and flounder. We’ve seen some go on to professional schools and some have achieved incredible success already in their budding careers. 

Very little of these successes and failures were correlated to where they went to college. They are a result of work ethic, personal connections, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

My college snob attitude is gone

As for me, my college snob attitude is long gone. I know that college rankings are a bunch of BS and self-promotion on the part of higher education. If I can offer you any advice, it is don’t drive yourself crazy, spend a fortune, or push a kid who’s not interested into the fast lane of the rat race that is today’s college admissions. Don’t drink the overhyped and overpriced Kool Aid and be sure your student understands that a rejection from any school is so far from personal.

Your child’s mental health and happiness should be protected at all costs. If you as a parent harbor any bit of college snobbery or elitism, hide it deeply inside and don’t let it cause your family needless anxieties. It will fade eventually, as it absolutely should. 

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

More Great Reading:

College Admissions: 5 Things High School Seniors Want Parents to Know

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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