The College Conversation: A lot to learn from making mistakes

As students enter the final weeks of the academic school year, the pressure to perform is tremendous.

Some students pace themselves for the culminating exams and projects, therefore reaping the benefits of careful planning and hard work. Others hole themselves up in their rooms, working around the clock to illustrate their mastery of curriculum.

And, then, there's that other student population. Those who are so afraid of failure that they turn to a less savory method — cheating — in order to achieve the desired outcome of an A.

The stakes are so high in the eyes of many students (and the parents who've raised them) that they see no other choice but to cheat. Time and again these students have been told that being average won't get you into a "good" college.

So, parents rush to the aid of students when procrastination reaches its peak. A final project is assigned months before the due date, and at 10 p.m. the night before the deadline, panic sets in.

The parent pulls an all-nighter with the student to avert failure. An essay on the 200-page novel is due tomorrow and the book is barely worn, but the parent rushes out to purchase SparkNotes, or the student carefully devises a cheat sheet to, once again, avert failure.

An Advanced Placement course challenges a student's intellect, resulting in the average grade of C. The notion that it is not okay to be "average" sets in, so the parent demands a level change to ensure the student will earn a grade of A in an easier class. Again, failure is averted.

Even at some high schools, both public and private, students must earn an A in a prerequisite class in order to level up to a more advanced one. The unspoken message is that a less-than-perfect grade in the prerequisite class will ultimately result in a student's failure or less-than-stellar performance. The risk of allowing students to be average seems too high. Allowing a child to fail is seen as unconscionable.

I worked with a student this year whose academic schedule was one of the most rigorous I've seen in 16 years of college admissions counseling. But there was a glaring red flag.

Even though she had an A in her first semester of AP English, she leveled down mid-year to a regular college-prep English class. Since she planned to declare a major in the humanities, I worried about how colleges would perceive this change in curriculum. But, then, the real reason for dropping the class came out.

She loved literature. Loved talking about literature. Was energized by writing.

But the AP English class left her, as she put it, "uninspired."

Was it the literature they were reading? The heavy workload? It was none of that. She read every word of every page in the novels. She wrote multiple drafts of essays, receiving high praise from her teacher.

But, in her words, more than half of the class cheated in some way every day. The majority of her peers in these classes used any means necessary to earn those As.

They constantly sized each other up, fought competitively to set the curve and felt pressured to be the best in their class. They asked friends, who had earlier periods of the same course, if there were pop quizzes, so when their turn came for class, they were ready to test.

She said she felt she could never keep up. And, she didn't want to.

So she leveled down, took the regular English class, and said she learned more and did not feel as pressured to perform. She learned for the sake of learning, reading the AP novels for pleasure, and not as a means to an end — the end being the elusive "A."

She did not want her "grade hungry" peers to take away her passion for literature.

It is time to allow students to fail. By no means am I suggesting that we encourage failure. Rather, we need to provide the opportunity for students to learn from failure. It's common knowledge that cheat sheets and peeking at your neighbor's paper is academically dishonest.

But what about a parent completing parts of a student's project or students copying each other's worksheets for homework? Is that cheating? Are these incidents a gateway to more serious infractions like plagiarism or stealing an exam from the teacher's desk?

If parents refuse to run out in the middle of the night to purchase the needed poster board for tomorrow's project, accept an average grade of C every so often, and allow their child to take a class he may or may not be 100% prepared for, maybe the feeling of failure will compel a student to do better next time, be more prepared, and see the value of hard work.

We need to consider how to allow a child to fail. There is a lot to learn from making mistakes, and maybe we, as adults, are to blame for the cheating epidemic. And with 3,000 colleges in the United States, being "average" will still get your kid into hundreds of great colleges.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs Sundays. Please send college admissions questions to Lisa@EDvantageConsulting.com.

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