Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Who Needs Harvard? We Do!

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The work of high school counselors just got a lot easier, and we have Frank Bruni to thank. His essay   “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness” uses real case studies to show students that life tends to work out pretty well for students whose dream school says no—and sometimes, it’s even better than if the dream school had said yes.

This is the ideal piece to pass along to anxious parents, right before admissions madness hits its peak.  It’s also a good piece to pass along to students, but I have to say, I don’t worry about them as much; they always seem to bounce back from the “no” of a college better than Mom and Dad do.  In any case, it makes for great family reading, so take a look at it, and share with your families, knowing the piece has its limits:
  • First, the piece does share enthusiasm for the “who cares about Harvard?” movement that’s swirling about us, and that’s cause for concern.  Yes, Harvard’s hard to get into—but that’s because it’s a great school, and it plays an important role in the education of more than just the students who go there.

Aspiring hoopsters of varying abilities have pictures of LeBron James on their bedroom walls, and that inspires them to be better basketball players, even though few (if any) will make it to the NBA.  The same is true for the role Harvard plays in the goal setting and development of our bright students; giving their all to achieving a high academic goal ensures they will have the discipline, habits, and perseverance needed to be successful  in whatever college they attend, and the subsequent life they lead.  Without the high goal of Harvard, these students don’t realize all of who they are, and what they can achieve—and that makes us all a little poorer.

  • Counselors wiser than I have pointed out that, while Bruni is trying to point out the value of every college, he doesn’t exactly do that.  His examples of students who went on to other colleges focuses largely on top tier schools, and more than one counselor has said there seems to be a message in the piece that says “Don’t worry—your child will still make their first million before they’re 30.”  This certainly limits the impact this piece can have if you work primarily with students who aren’t looking to Top 25 colleges, but there may be a way to use some of the ideas in the piece that will drive key ideas home about opportunity and achievement. 
  • Parents will want to be careful about the messages they send their child about college.  Bruni ends his piece with a touching story about two parents who wrote a letter of unconditional love to their son the night before his college decisions came.  The letter proved to help the student through the rejections he received, and he was able to move forward and make the most of the college choices he had.

This level of parental insight is inspiring, but that doesn’t mean it should be replicated.  The parents made the right choice for their child—but the same letter, written to a child with a different set of values or level of self-esteem, could have the opposite effect. As we prepare students for Decision Day, let’s keep in mind this individual process is about who they are, not who we want them to be.  If we do that, we’ll know just what to say to make each student look forward to what comes after high school.  

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