The College Conversation: The choice between the 'racer' and 'pacer' path

I've spent the last month sharing with our local PTAs a new presentation that I've named, "The New Reality of College Admissions."

As attendees enter the room, I feel the tension rise. It's obvious they feel overwhelmed and anxious about navigating the path to college admissions with their teen.

I walk to the podium, pick up the microphone, smile at the audience and encourage everyone to take a deep breath. We inhale and exhale together as laughter embraces the room.

Our nerves are calmed, at least for the moment.

I start by asking the question: "What does it really take to gain admission to college these days?"

This was the question the PTA used to market the presentation to local high schools. I suspect that many of the attendees came because they wanted to know definitively how to get the golden admissions ticket.

Well, they didn't get it.

The only answer they got from me was: "It depends."

Instead, they got a barrage of reflective questions to help them come up with the answer themselves.

"What is the purpose of going to high school?"

Is high school a means to an end, the end being the ability to paste a prestigious college bumper sticker on the back of the parent's car?

Or is high school a place for personal, social and emotional growth, where the "end game" is not pre-determined up front, before the student even steps on campus?

More often than not, parents won't openly admit if they believe the sole purpose of high school is to get in to the best schools in the nation.

"Of course I want my teen to grow personally and intellectually!"

Well, I chose to challenge their internal assumptions. How do they react in certain situations that inevitably arise in high school?

If their teen comes to them with a low grade in a challenging AP course begging to drop the class, does the parent immediately rush to fix the problem by calling the teacher, counselor or principal?

Does the parent encourage the student to drop the class for fear of the student earning a lower GPA?

Sounds like a "means-to-an-end" parent to me.

Or does the parent honor that teachable moment and help the student understand the value of the struggle?

Does the parent consider all that teen can learn from sticking it out in a more intellectual class?

Now that sounds like a parent willing to encourage real personal and intellectual growth. As I continue on with various scenarios, the mood in the room changes. I've struck a chord.

I proceed to help parents understand that their anxiety about college admissions is related to the specific college path their student is choosing to take or the one that they are choosing for their teen to take.

If the student believes the purpose of high school is to get into the best college, the brand-name college, and the one with the highest rankings and lowest admission rates, they do have a reason to feel anxious. The majority of students who apply to highly selective colleges are rejected.

Thousands of students who've towed the line (and then some) throughout their entire K-12 schooling simply won't get in. They've taken every AP class, been involved in a plethora of meaningful activities, stayed up late and slept little.

But, the reality is they most likely will not get in to a highly selective college. That's frustrating. At least that's what students on this path tell me. They also share how exhausted, stressed out, anxious, worried and depressed they feel.

Here's the reality: It's the rare student who feels intellectually stimulated, incredibly curious and socially well balanced that ultimately gains admission to highly selective schools.

Harvard rejected 94% of its applicants. Almost 30% of those admitted last year were children of alumni. That means the best way to prepare for Harvard is for the parent to travel back in time and earn a Harvard undergraduate degree.

Seriously. There's no need for that.

Eighty-three percent of competitive colleges (those that require more than a pulse to gain admission) accept more than 50% of the students who apply. No impossible time travel required.

As I told the parents in the room, the choice is yours. Put your kid on the "racer" path to a highly selective university, as outlined above, or consider what I call the "pacer" path that includes a strong college prep curriculum with some AP and honors classes mixed in, involvement in an activity that matters, average test scores and a willingness to be open-minded about the types of colleges that are within the student's reach.

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

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