PTA Coffee Break: Tips for high school students' futures

Last month, Coffee Break welcomed Cindy Muchnick, educational consultant, author and former college admissions counselor, to discuss how parents can support their kids through the high school years. Muchnick, a mother of four, brought a wonderful sense of practical can-do philosophies for parents as we wander the ever-changing landscape toward college, career and life.

Before the speaker, Laguna Beach High School Principal Joanne Culverhouse introduced Naviance, the new online college search service provided at the high school. Naviance is a comprehensive tool helping each student through the entire process of self and career exploration and searching among nearly 4,000 colleges in the U.S. Yet, as parents were sighing over Naviance, Muchnick launched into her own divergent philosophy: When in high school, stay focused on the business of high school.

Muchnick warned that the college search can become a "huge distraction." She emphasized that one's high school years are the hardest four but that college is the prize, where all the hard work is converted into personal freedom to pursue passions.

Her entire approach is that high school is a student's job," and it is the student's responsibility to serve the interests of six to eight bosses, or teachers in the case of high school. Success should not be gauged by GPA as much as the more subjective goal of how one is doing at the job. Often parents who are competing through their children and pressing for the highest GPAs are adding unnecessary and unproductive stress to their kids' lives.

From the perspective of a college admissions counselor, Muchnick stated that the transcript is the single most important piece of paper in a college application. However, what is evaluated is far more nuanced than the GPA. First, the transcript is analyzed to see if the student really challenged himself or herself in areas of interest. Second the grade pattern from semester to semester is examined to see if students continue to work toward improving performance throughout the year, and finally the grade trend evaluates the trends through freshman to sophomore to junior year. Knowing this enables parents to frame conversations with their students in terms of trying to improve, whether in the year or from year to year.

Her specific recommendations for parental support:

•Contract with your kids to sit in the first three rows of class for the rest of their lives. Multiple studies have shown that teacher's focus on this area, and it is a way to jump-start the relationship between teacher and student.

•Extra credit is like free money. Don't leave it on the table.

•Create a study space at home that is free from the multiple distractions of earbuds, Internet and cell phone. Unnecessary distractions actually expand the time required to do homework.

•Challenge kids to develop relationships with their teachers outside of class. For example, show up at SDL on Thursdays, or say "hi" in the hall. There is only one chance to make a first impression, yet it's never too late to recreate self. It's documented that kids identities change fluidly throughout the high school years.

•Befriend the upperclassman; learn the ropes through their experience.

•Be a joiner or a leader. Parents can help brainstorm club ideas. One Laguna student had an obsession with Etch A Sketch, turned it into a club, then into a philanthropic mission and finally a killer college essay.

•For serious athletes, back off one practice a week to provide your child that extra two to three hour "gift of sanity." Use an academic explanation with upset coaches. Have kids handle it.

•Get a job to avoid an entitled, indulged attitude, which is especially important in a wealthy community. The job should be for money, require an application and be typical student work. It shouldn't be working for family or friends, or be boring, such as a clerk job. Work is also valued by colleges.

•Volunteer doing something you love, like teaching kids in the neighborhood. Often, volunteer work leads to an actual paying job.

•Spend summers wisely. This is evaluated by colleges. See which is actually Yelped by kids.

•Find and pursue passions; be honest whether the passion belongs to the child or parents.

Muchnick concluded that it is important not to sweat the small stuff; be realistic, supportive and non-judgmental. Her demonstrated stance as an advocate and supporter felt like a reasonable, useful and attainable goal among the parents in the room.

KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.

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