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News Flash to Juniors and Seniors in High School (AND their Parents): perfecting the college process

This is the time of year juniors and seniors in high school start to feel an imbalanced amount of stress.

“If I don’t get into X school, I won’t have a future!”

…as though their grades and what college they attend determines all future happiness. They hunker down in anxiety, fixated on the process. Often parents respond as if their own future is at stake too. Stress feeds off of stress.

It is imperative that we appropriately minimize the college acceptance hype. As adults, we can lead the way with truth. Here are four points to keep in mind based on my personal work with graduates; it may be worth re-reading once a week!

Trust the Creator of the ENTIRE Universe with your child’s life.

First of all, let me begin by saying I have worked with families of high school seniors and have taught seniors for almost two decades. As I have watched this process become more overwhelming for families in the last few years I have contemplated the root causes. If I could express one basic truth we need to return to, it would be this: we have forgotten God’s faithfulness to our kids. His diehard commitment. His mighty strength and endurance. His desire to get us where we need to go. His perfect wisdom motivated by what our kids need that we do not know. We, all of us, are in his hands. HIS plans for our kids are far more thought-out than ours. He knows their strongholds and the areas where they need freedom. He knows what their future holds. He knows what vocation will best serve His Kingdom and produce a fulfilling life. If we lose this perspective, we will panic, go into hyper-control mode, write the application ourselves, obsess over grades and class-rank, and worst of all, ignite anxiety in our kids even more. The greatest gift you can give your kids is to trust God with their lives. Your peace will transfer right into their souls whether they say it or not.

Do you trust that God has them even when it may seem otherwise? Oh the benefit to our kids for the adults in their lives to be anchored in trust, faith, prayer and rest.

#2 Keep college in perspective. Throw US News and World Report out the window, or better yet, burn it so that no one else gets their hands on it!

Most of us would agree that years ago the process of college applications and acceptances did not carry the stress and panic it carries today. One primary reason is the false belief many have adopted: “where one goes to college will determine one’s future success and wellbeing.” Many kids have told me this is exactly what they believe. It’s genuinely sad (hence the need to re-read #1 regularly). God’s pure love and perfect wisdom matter far more than any other factor when it comes to the lives of our kids. And He is not going to lose track of them. His response is NOT:

“Oh no, their resume doesn’t look full, they won’t make it into an such-and-such prestigious school, what am I going to do?? My hands are tied!”

Thankfully, God feels zero stress.

The second reason stress has increased is due to the competition between classmates and families. Who will “steal” a spot at that school? One student told me, "We are starting to feel threatened by and annoyed with our good friends." The universities are in part responsible for making us all crazy around entrances into certain schools. It’s worth knowing a bit of the behind-the-scenes.

Julie Lythcott-Haims was the Dean of Freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford University. If you have heard me speak, or been in a conversation with me in the last three years, you have likely heard me talk about Julie Lythcott-Haims’s book, How to Raise an Adult. Her perspectives are first-hand and reliable. Her stories are true. She is a prophet for change, calling out the dysfunction in our culture and providing practical advice to parents. Her goal is to keep the next generation growing into maturity. I have told my students over and over, “maturity does not come with age.” There are many grown adults who remain stuck in adolescence. Julie addresses the reasons our kids have ended up with anxiety, depression and purposelessness. Parents are forgetting what matters, and kids are struggling with life skills, goals, self-respect and humility. Julie Lythcott Haims has insights into the broken system of the university that is adding to the mess; it is worth paying attention to what she has witnessed in her role and her inside peek at the infamous US News and World Report Best Colleges edition.

Anyone inside academia knows the ‘Best Colleges’ ranking is meaningless when it comes to assessing excellence in education, yet the rankings are powerfully persuasive in steering applicants to just a tiny fraction of America’s great possibilities” (129).

It’s all about getting your money. Here’s the game we are falling for: Colleges want the rankings that get them on "the list.” Julie informs her readers that the PSAT scores are sold by The College Board to the universities and the universities start their mass mailings to the homes of these kids. If they get loads of applications, they get “selected” to be in the US News and World Report edition. More applications, more money. More applications, more prestige. More applications, more competitive rankings. Some schools have refused to participate (Reed College and Sarah Lawrence College). They don’t want to be a part of the nasty business of exploiting people’s fears. As a response, US News and World Report knowingly fabricates stats on schools who refuse to participate.

To date, this is the ONE issue that brings in the most revenue for the magazine. Unfortunately, parents still think it matters that their child go to a school that falls on this list. Subsequently, the students do too. High expectations about attendance at a certain school set kids up for disappointment. Don’t be deceived by this misinformation cloaked as factual news. Think about what your kids really need and what school is a best fit for them. Ironically, the more prestigious school could actually be the worst thing for your child.

We haven’t heard from all the Ivy League graduates that “life post-graduation went perfectly well with no suffering, hardships or roadblocks,” at least, I haven’t found the research yet.

If you get to panic mode, take a few steps back. College is not the key to a meaningful life!

Each year, after sending high school seniors off to college, they come back, plop on my couch and share about their experience. The ONE theme I share with kids and parents on repeat is: “You can go anywhere and have a good experience, you can go anywhere and get a job after you graduate, but what makes or breaks your college experience is what kind of friends you connect with initially.” The top named schools on the list in the dishonest US News and World Report are overrated. Parents pay a lot of money to raise their child’s SAT scores, all the while the statistics reveal that: (a) those scores are a result of lots of money spent on tutors and (b) they do not reflect the true essence of the child and how smart or capable they are as they enter higher education. In the end, we fall for worshipping the god of the top tier university with no consideration if it is a good fit for the child.

Malcolm Gladwell’s must read, David and Goliath, addresses this exact problem (I can’t get into it all here, but go get that book too!). The fear of not getting into a certain college and the false belief that not getting into that college will result in an unfulfilling and unsuccessful life, is resulting in panic and depression. Our kids feel the craziness. They either rebel against it or panic over not having what it takes. Some kids start evidencing fear about not getting into a “good school” as early as elementary school. This has squelched the joy of childhood and the healthy development of adolescence. Our own pride takes over. We want to talk about our kids getting in to “such-and-such” school.

We have made college too important. We have forgotten what matters. We have failed to contemplate what constitutes a good education and even a good life.

As a counselor in a wealthy private school, I had conversation upon conversation with students who were swimming in anxiety about their futures. Drifting back to my time as a kid, I never felt the pressure they emanate. I didn’t think much about the years ahead because the present one had enough cares of its own. The day I was living in had my full attention, bringing joy and challenge smack in the middle of where I stood. I want to take the lies off their shoulders that they are responsible for their future, and that grades determine if they get a "good life". I want to smash all their social media apps so as to give them a break from comparing themselves to every other person’s edited life on that small screen. My goal is to snap parents out of their own fear and to call out faith in a God who has the whole world in his hands.

Purpose, deep friendships, a repentant heart, a love for creation, a balance of technology, the ability to grieve well and a teachable spirit are what bring contentment, peace and joy in life—through good times and suffering.

#4 Don’t forget the basics: College entrance won’t matter if your child has no life skills!

With all of the consuming stress of applying to college, getting good grades, and taking on too many AP classes, it is imperative that we stop and consider what makes life run well. A well-developed brain does not produce a successful life. It is easy to lose our way and jump into the river of culture. We adopt the trending fears. We get hooked into societal lies and dragged up and down, back and forth. As adults, we must stop and THINK.

Kids are going off to college today with more anxiety than we have ever witnessed before. Kids are afraid of not doing well, not getting a job and not making friends. All of those unknowns cause stress. However, one of the primary issues is that kids do not feel prepared for life. The more we create avenues for kids to participate in life while they are growing up, the more able they are to problem-solve, get perspective, maintain realistic expectations about life and navigate relational conflict. Stepping onto a campus with a lack of daily life skills can result in anxiety. Searching answers on Google comes easy, but cleaning a bathroom, doing laundry, solving a problem with a bank account, mailing a package, and making a meal for a group of friends does not. Dr. Madeline Levine, who is an author and psychologist gives a great definition for over-parenting:

“When I say overparenting is not a great idea, I’m really talking about three things: Don’t do for your kid what they can already do. Don’t do for your kid what they can almost do, because that’s where they have those successful failures. Sometimes they make it; sometimes they don’t — but that’s where they learn. And don’t do for your kids out of your needs, not theirs. That’s my quick definition of overparenting.”

The more experiences we provide for our kids, the more tasks they have to complete, the more problems they have to face, the better equipped they are for life. Life skills are the antidote to anxiety and fear. So in the college process (and way before!), require your kids do the things life demands before they leave your house. The myth we tend to believe is that one day it will all happen, maturity will bloom. But that is not true. Likewise, we tell ourselves too often, “They have so much to do, so much on their plate, I can’t expect them to help with the dishes.” But adult life demands that when we have a full load

, we also have to pay bills, do laundry, help a friend and clean the house. Help them strengthen the muscles to handle life. Unless we cultivate growth, they will be an adolescent for 25 additional years. Scary.

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