Katie Mathews, the youngest of my three children, graduated from law school two weeks ago. That ends for me 22 years of college touring, SAT fretting, application essay reading, rejection angst, acceptance relief and tuition paying. I still worry about the job market, but barring an appointment to the Federal Reserve Board, that is beyond my influence.
My grandson Ben, 4, said he is going to go to college. I wished him luck. By then I will be gone or uncommunicative. While I can still type, perhaps I should take this opportunity to record the six key issues related to the college search, drawing on all that I have learned in my many years of parenting and writing.
1. SAT and ACT exams: They frighten your children and waste your money. They add little to the learning process. But resisting their power will do little more than aggravate family tension. When my daughter was in high school, her PSAT scores were fine. She didn’t need the SAT prep course. But her friends were taking it. She didn’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage. So I wrote the check, and said nothing when her SAT score turned out to be almost the same as her PSAT.
2. College tours: Pretend you are visiting a theme park. Have fun. Don’t take notes. Don’t ask a lot of questions at the admission office information session. You’re on vacation, right? Act like it. If your kid wants to take it seriously, fine. But if the tour guide is too snotty or the dorm rooms too small, she might not even apply. Wait until she has an acceptance letter before visiting with your clipboard and list of vital interrogatories.
3. Application essay: Encourage your child to expose his warmer, funnier side and experiment with a bit of self-deprecation. Selective colleges are seeking not only academic and extra-curricular excellence, but enough humor and modesty to make their admittees tolerable roommates and lab partners. An amusing story about nearly flunking a 10th-grade health class or trying to change the school mascot from the Crusaders to the Cockroaches will be better received than an essay on principles of international understanding learned during a summer in the south of France.
4. Rejection by first-choice college: The school that does admit your child will have much to offer. He will be happy there, particularly after you finish carrying his stuff into his dorm room and go away. The diverse, experiment-friendly, wide-open American system of higher education is a great gift to human civilization, and quite flexible. If it turns out the college your child selects is not the right one, he can transfer to another one, like President Obama and I did.
5. Choosing a major: You may dream of a child going pre-med and becoming a well-paid surgeon. My wife got a starry look when Ben recently showed her a stethoscope he had fashioned from pipe cleaners at pre-school. Still, it is better that they choose what makes them happy. College is a good place to figure that out.
6. Top-ranked colleges: Your children’s success in life will result from character traits you helped them develop long before they got to college. It has little if anything to do with how high their college ranks on the U.S. News list. My source on this is Princeton economist Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, and Stacy Berg Dale, researcher at Mathematic Policy Research Inc., authors of the 1999 paper “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College.” What matters in life are traits like patience, grit and kindness. The study found that students with those qualities who went to no-name colleges were making as much 20 years later as those who attended selective schools. And it’s more than just money. You will realize that when you reflect on where the people you most admire went to college.