Over the winter holidays, I heard a sad college-admissions story that unfortunately is not unique.
A father and mother had one daughter. Her mother had gone to a large state university; the father had graduated from an Ivy League college. As she was growing up, the daughter heard frequently from her father about how wonderful his experiences were at this famous school, and that if she worked hard, she could go there, too. He took her to visit the campus when she was in 6th grade, and again a few years later for a football weekend. When she entered high school, he stepped up the pressure: she had to apply to his college. It was really the only place he would consider acceptable. The mother tried to put in a word for her school, but the father insisted that the higher "ranking" of his college would open more doors for their daughter than any public institution.
The girl's college counselor wisely advised her about a range of schools that offered the subjects and campus experience the student sought, and came up with a list of 12. The girl's grades and scores were solid, but not Ivy League caliber; however, her father insisted that she apply early to his alma mater and that people he knew might be able to influence the decision. He also insisted she apply to three other Ivies.
The student was turned down by all of the Ivy League schools. She was accepted by five other colleges. She visited three, and selected the one where she would enroll. However, she felt second-rate. She was accepted only by the "compromise" schools. Even before she attended her first college class, she felt like a loser, and it took her a long time to re-establish her self-esteem.
This story is not unusual. Once a father told me that his daughter was "our family's last hope." He made it sound tragic. What was the problem? The older daughter and son had gone to branches of SUNY, and not to "name-brand" private colleges. The younger daughter represented his last chance to show off. Another mother absolutely insisted that her son apply to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Dartmouth, and Brown only – he agreed to apply to several non-Ivies after my strong urging, and those were the only schools to accept him.
Some parents feel that being admitted to an Ivy League school is the pinnacle of achievement, both for their children and for them. They convey this attitude so often to their children that it becomes embedded in them. They will cite reasons such as rankings and prestige – even if they know nothing about the daily life of the school and whether it would suit their children.
They don't consider that tens of thousands of applicants have the same thoughts. Most Ivy League schools have acceptance rates under 10 percent. That is extremely selective. These colleges recruit across the world. The competition is extraordinary, and the vast majority of applicants will be disappointed.
Parents and students who obsess over the Ivy League are misguided. I am not saying that it is wrong to aim for an Ivy admission, if there is a chance for it. But it is unhealthy to obsess over any college. And it is bad guidance to instill the idea that an Ivy League college is great and everything else is second-rate. Those colleges are excellent – but so are many, many other schools.
Perseverating over any "name brand" college puts unhealthy pressure on an applicant and it can cause the applicant not to see the great qualities of other schools. Parents and guidance counselor should emphasize the positive qualities of a range of colleges, and be supportive of the student's choices.
Teenagers may seem full of ego and bravado, but they also fragile. No one should make a young person feel like a disappointment or failure even before they get started.
Parents, you are not applying to college. Your children are. Please allow them to consider many options when applying, and support them by saying positive things about their choices. And love them – wherever they choose to go to school.