As a clinical social worker turned independent educational consultant focused on four-year academic planning and the college application process, I have seen how changing times have affected students and parents alike, catapulting their anxiety levels to ultimate proportions. We have lost sight of what higher education truly means, the value of it and access to it. Our world is changing and changing fast. Opportunity. Freedom. Prosperity. Unity. Words that many would have used to describe America. Historically, people from all over the world sought refuge in our country with the notion that, with hard work and perseverance, they could reap boundless success. What has happened to our country?
As Americans in today’s society, we have forgotten how to sit with the uncomfortable and push through challenging times, since immediate gratification trumps all. With our changing society, it seems that people have lost touch with what made our country so great. Advancing technology allows things to happen in an instant, and being bigger and better than the next one, regardless of process and integrity, seems to be the goal. Any quick fix that will yield immediate “results” with minimal effort is most desirable. The notion of hard work, accountability, and respect for self and others has been lost. Many people do not think about searching for an authentic internal relevance; rather, they turn to social media, commercial marketing, and their credit cards to validate their existence and buy their advancement.
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So, as disappointing as it is, I am not shocked that some individuals have circumvented the college admissions process. As an independent educational college consultant for the past 16 years, I have heard it all from students, parents and coaches alike. “My son/daughter has to apply to an Ivy or Ivy-like institution so that they can meet their future spouse and live the life they have been accustomed to,” or “my child has to go to a tier-one college or university so they can reach their goals faster because employers are more apt to hire graduates from top-tier schools,” or “do you think that my yearly donations to the alumni fund will help in the admissions process at all?” or even, “my friend knows someone in the development office, who knows someone who knows the president of said school. Do you think that will help?” And when those questions aren’t directly asked, the grammar in the sentences used by parents to discuss the admissions process always refers to the “we” rather than “he/she” or “my son/daughter.” Although applying to colleges involves a group effort, it requires the student to step front and center to be able to learn, grow and mature through the process. As guides in our children’s lives, many have become negligent in providing them a skill set that encourages them to become independent thinkers, self-reflective and able to make choices that reflect their interests. Parents have a responsibility to help their children become independent of them and not perpetuate dependency on them.
In fact, many children do not even know why they engage in the activities that they do because they are just checking the boxes and making sure they participate and get the trophy. True enrichment comes when a student can verbalize the ‘why’ behind the experience. It is all about intention. Many teens cannot articulate why they do anything. Students today struggle with coping strategies and critical thinking skills, they are emotionally reactive and unable to transcend challenges. They take the easy way out and many parents are co-conspirators in arguing for a changed grade, overstepping their place on the sidelines or trying to negate consequences after rules are broken. It is no wonder that parents behave so outrageously in the admissions process when they believe the stakes to be so high. We have raised a culture of entitled youth who, although they are exceptionally accepting of differences, are unable to find depth in relationships because much of their existence is enabled or filtered. Reality has escaped many and we, as adults, are failing them by constantly bubble wrapping. What are we teaching our children by constantly saving them, or better yet, not holding them accountable? This admissions scandal illustrates exactly what is happening in our society.
When families meet with me to determine if I will be a good fit for the family to guide them through the process, what many do not know is that I am equally vetting our interpersonal dynamic. My program is designed to help students develop tools for empowerment and skills for life. Never have I ever taken responsibility for my student’s successes, and I actively instruct families to run from any consultant who takes ownership over “getting kids in to college.” Consultants who use this language are driven by ego and not the student’s growth.
The student is the one who should be owning the process and, therefore, accountable to the outcome. When done with the right intention, which is to align a student’s academic and extracurricular interests and personality with a place of higher learning and then to have the student invest authentic intellectual and personal energy into the process, more often than not, things work out. However, when there is a misalignment between those aspects and people’s intention, things will always go awry. The universe was designed this way; we all know karma and the admissions process many times make that introduction.
Over the years, I have identified three types of parents who are toxic to this experience:
- “It’s my second chance.” These parents live vicariously through their child’s experience, desperately trying to resurrect their adolescence and poorly executed college application process. They want a do-over. They engage in their child’s process with a “do it better this time” mentality, completely ignorant to who their child actually is and what is good for them, only focused on schools that they like.
- “My child is a trophy or barometer for my parenting.” These individuals use their child’s accomplishments to define how well they parent and their child’s abilities, or lack thereof, are correlated to their parenting.
- “The life vest” These parents save their children from everything and do not want them to suffer or struggle through the admissions process, or anything else for that matter.
Unfortunately, these parents have trouble seeing how they are negatively contributing to their child’s developmental process. Aside from the college application process, this type of parenting is detrimental to children making decisions for themselves and trusting their instincts. Infiltrating and undermining their college process, one that comes at a huge milestone in development, sends a message to children that we do not accept them for who they are or for what they choose for themselves.
However, the “realistic, grounded and authentic” parent sees their children for who they are, the good, the bad and the ugly, and allows them to exist in that space and be accountable to it. Unfortunately, the realistic grounded and authentic parents, especially during the application process, are in the minority. In fact, they are often made out by their peers to be disinterested in their children’s future and too hands off. In actuality, these are the parents who are giving their children space to figure out their respective identities and are accepting of who they are both personally and academically. They are the ones who let the process play out for what it is supposed to be.
When we do not encourage our children to use awareness and critical thinking as a means of navigating situations in their lives, the concept of process gets lost. Immediate gratification takes over and perseverance through tough times becomes unfamiliar. Many people want what they want and are unwilling to put in the work required to realize their goals. As a result, people cut corners, lie, cheat and steal to garner the trophy. No one is accountable to their behavior and, therefore, our society stagnates. What people do not realize is that we, as humans, share a collective energy and by playing this game of life underhandedly, we taint the waters for all. It is a ripple effect. Higher education, by design, should be about academic prowess, personal development and true grit effort. It should not be about elitism, connections, financial or social means, or legacy. Individuals have within themselves the opportunity to be the author of their own story and decide the outcome by the energy they choose to apply to their experiences.
There are no guarantees ever in admissions, or in life as we know it. While in the midst of this admissions mess, I do want to point out that having guidance throughout the process can be done ethically if the student remains at the center of the conversation. Independent college consulting should be about helping students and families understand the application process holistically and allowing students to take responsibility over finding their new academic home for the next four years. The admissions platform is the perfect training ground for teens to be able to step into young adulthood and take ownership of their identity through a series of experiences that require critical thinking, interpersonal development, self-evaluation, calculated risk taking, challenges and, ultimately, accountability.
Sometimes there are opportunities for students to experience failure…yes, I said the ‘F’ word. For example, standardized testing presents challenges for many students and the amount of time and effort put in to studying does not always garner the expected return. Students need to learn to adapt and accept what is. Sometimes students come to realize that a school they think they love may not be an appropriate academic fit. They need to reconcile that concept without losing their sense of self. The best opportunities for personal growth are birthed from experiences that do not always work out the way we want or plan.
In fact, what a student wants (or their parents for that matter) does not play a role in the process—what serves as the game changer is what a student is willing to do to make their actions count. If executed correctly, students will learn much about themselves, develop a skill set of time management, advocacy, and communication skills, and be in a position to transfer this skill set to college and beyond. Consultants who approach the admissions process from a developmental perspective will be able to help students become self-actualized, ultimately leading towards a student’s individual empowerment. If parents join in to support this development and hold their children accountable, transformation occurs. When students act out of genuine intention rather than what they believe society dictates, they have a stronger sense of self and an increased confidence, enabling them to live empowered lives, undaunted by the circus surrounding them.