The College Process: What to focus upon and what causes needless suffering

By College Advice

“This is therapy.” a mother with a Daniel Hand High School junior recently said to me in relation to our kick-off to college counseling session.  “I have been driving myself crazy with all the things that I thought my son had to do and I appreciate that you narrowed the list.”

“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”  With seven words, Michael Pollan’s advice summarized thousands of the best diet books.  (The full translation: eat real food – not processed- mostly vegetables and limit calories). So it is with college counseling.  The big three for most students: grades, test scores, and activities.  Focus on ensuring that all three are in good order and your child will be in shape for most colleges.

At least in relation to the college search, here are few things that matter very little for most students:

1.) Playing time in a sport.  The amount of suffering that parents in our Shoreline, Connecticut area have over their children’s athletics is so out of proportion with what really matters in life that it deserves a full chapter in my next book.   In relation to the college search and with the assumption that your child is not being recruited for college sports, if your son/daughter is on the team but not starting, it doesn’t matter one bit in relation to admission to most colleges.

2.) Desired parts in a school play/musical.  Similarly, at least in relation to admission to college, outside perhaps the lead, it doesn’t really matter if your child has the role with the 7th most lines versus the part with the 3rd most lines.  The truth is no one really cares except the parents!

3.) Specific v. holistic course selection.  This is a complicated one to unpack in a short article.  But in quick summary: the overall strength of your child’s course selection is what really matters. So, for example, I have had many parent and student clients suffer over specific courses needlessly.  “I am taking AP English, AP US History, AP Biology and I really don’t want to take AP Calculus because I’m not that good in math.  But won’t colleges think this is bad?”  I hear some variation of that comment from college counseling clients every week.  Fortunately, “no” is the general answer. Assuming your child has an overall tough course load, she doesn’t have to suffer over maximizing every class, particularly in areas of weakness.

Get top grades; top test scores; and excel in at least one activity.  That’s the simple recipe for college admission success.