By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose
I have taken a very close look at one of the biggest anxiety producers for parents these days: Getting our kids into college. In my research, I have found some truths, some myths, and some different ways of looking at this issue that might decrease our own worries and increase the likelihood of success for our kids. In this column I am going to focus on the myth that it is harder than ever to get into college.
Let’s first look at the statement: It is harder than ever to get into college. This statement comes from the fact that colleges (and universities—I will use college as the generic term) have had a huge increase in the number of applicants in the past 10 years, and the number of students accepted has not increased dramatically. At first view, it means that they are turning away more and more students, but they are not. One of the reasons for the increase has been because the students are sending more applications than they used to. Most schools are getting many more applications than 10 years ago. Therefore, the applicant/student ratio has changed dramatically, but that doesn’t mean it is harder to get in.
Let’s look at some more accurate ways to see how hard it is to get in to school compared to ten years ago. Nationally, when you compare GPA and SAT scores 10 years ago of students being accepted into a competitive college with recent students, the numbers have not moved much at all. In general, a well-qualified student has just as much an opportunity of getting into a good school now as a decade ago.
“But Neil, in Virginia the state schools have gotten much more difficult to get into in the past 10 years. That means my kids must work harder than I did to get in.”
That’s true, especially in Virginia, at least to a point. When you take a look at the top four or five state schools in any state, they have probably become more competitive because their reputation has probably increased recently. William and Mary, The University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and James Madison University, among others, are more difficult to get into than ever.
This is possibly not a myth, but the question is: what do we do about this information? Do we let it increase our anxiety and do everything we can to get our kids into those schools? Possibly, but there might be major consequences to that. I have worked with a number of students whose parents did everything they could to assure good grades in high school. Then, when their child went off to college and didn’t have that level of support, they realized they were in over their heads and couldn’t compete.
Or do we accept that our child might not have the academic drive to be successful at such schools? It feels like a question we shouldn’t ask, as if it is decreasing our confidence in our kids. But ask yourself, if you have a child getting Bs in the beginning of sophomore year, with a GPA of 3.2 what is the likelihood she will get into Harvard? Probably pretty slim. What are the chances of William and Mary, or UVA (or insert any other very competitive school)? Probably pretty slim. It’s OK to admit this. There is a point where telling our kids “you can do anything” tends to be destructive instead of being motivating. It is OK for us to help our children set reasonable goals but setting goals that are unreasonable might be more damaging than motivating.
One of the exercises I do with high school students is to begin to look at the chances of how they will finish high school based on where they are now. I remember a student I worked with at the end of his sophomore year. He had a 2.9 GPA at that point and was still hopeful that he could get into a top school. So, we did the math. If he got straight A’s for the rest of his high school career, the best he could get was a 3.45. Now a 3.45 is nothing to sneer at. It’s a very good GPA, but not good enough for him to get into the schools that require a higher GPA. He had already lost that chance his first two years. And I think it is also realistic for him to ask himself what are the chances he will get straight A’s when he has been a B student from first grade up to 10th grade? So, instead of him focusing on an unrealistic goal, he was better off looking at where he could be successful instead of trying to reach something very difficult to meet.
My advice to parents is to take the anxiety down a couple of notches. It might not be as hard as you think it is for your son or daughter to get to college. Will they get into the same school as you? Maybe, or maybe not. Instead of narrowing your focus on just a few choices, keep your options open.
[Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Leesburg, VA and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]