Cognitive Dissonance and the Check-Listed Childhood

How many parents out there have read Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult, or watched her Ted Talk on the concept of what she defines as a “check-listed childhood”? I am starting to think that everyone in America must have, because her views seem to come up in conversation constantly. If you are not familiar, you can find the video of the Ted Talk here and it’s definitely worth watching if you can’t make time to read the book.

When I first watched her Ted Talk, I was mildly horrified. I agreed with everything she said, of course, and thought about her message during my first rodeo in the world of competitive parenting this fall. I have a first grader, and she took the NNAT on November 13 - my birthday (oh the irony!). I know that many other parents prepped their children for the test; I did not, and I felt really great about my clearly-superior parenting skills. I was going to do this the right way!

As mid-December moved into late-December and we still hadn’t gotten her score back, I turned into a crazy person. I checked SIS like a maniac. Or would it come in the Wednesday folder? In her backpack? Finally, I learned that the letters had been mailed and that I would receive the score on Christmas Eve through the mail. What first seemed like bad timing was actually incredibly well-played, because then parents couldn’t contact the school with questions and would have to wait two weeks to simmer down. Smart.

I spent most of Christmas Eve waiting obsessively for the mailman to come. I wanted it to be high, so she would have a good shot at the AAP program. I saw him come from an upstairs window and made my husband run out to grab it, and stood in the kitchen opening the envelope with my heart pounding, like a complete and total idiot. She is six years old. She did well, by the way, probably not high enough to be in-pool for AAP, but it was a good score. She is a smart kid. Still, I was disappointed (don’t worry, she was not home and she has no clue that this score even exists). Clearly, my decision to forgo test prep was not in line with my goal of a high score.

The entire experience helped me identify with my clients on a deeper level in terms of the concept of cognitive dissonance - particularly in relation to our goals for our children and the effort that it takes to achieve those goals. At the core, we all want our kids to be happy and fulfilled, right? I don’t think that there are many of us that want to push our children over the edge. We all realistically know that test prep for a first grader is probably not a great idea, just as we know that pushing high school kids to overwhelm themselves with coursework that requires studying until 3:00 a.m. each day is not a good idea.

Yet, and this is especially timely at this time of year with course registration on the horizon: how many of us actually modify our goals for our children in response to the decisions we make as parents? It was easy for me to say that I wasn’t going to prep my first-grader for the NNAT, but it was harder to feel fine with the eventual outcome. It’s easy to say that we shouldn’t force twelfth graders to take AP Calculus or continue with a slate of activities that they no longer enjoy, but it’s so much harder to truly feel fine with the idea that UVA may not be in the cards anymore because of those decisions.

I don’t have a magical solution to solve this problem (I wish I did!). It would be so much easier if my daughter just scored perfectly on her own and if all the kids with whom I work are naturally Harvard-bound without any kind of intervention. Ultimately, though, I think that there is a balance between a check-listed childhood and free-range parenting, and that balance may look different for each family.

I would urge parents to consider these types of dilemmas while acknowledging the consequences in the context of our ultimate goals for our children. This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily adjust our goals or adjust our parenting decisions, but we do have to come to terms with the idea that decisions lead to consequences, so that there are no surprises down the line in terms of an inability to achieve goals. There may be situations when we as parents decide that a little pain now is worth the end result, and there may be situations where we decide it isn’t.

As for me, I have a lot of strategy and planning sessions on my calendar this month and will be discussing course selections at length. I will continue to tell everyone that I highly recommend AP Calculus to students that hope to be competitive applicants to highly selective schools, if AP Calculus is an option on the table. Yes, even for the kid that’s not interested in math. And yes, a fourth year of a foreign language (not to be confused with level four) is equally important… IF the goal is UVA. But it doesn’t have to be!

Coming Home to Stay

I recently came across The New York Times article When a College Student Comes Home to Stay and felt it necessary to add my two cents, given my experience working with so many families and students over the years.

In previous generations, everyone looked forward to college. Arrival on campus for freshman orientation represented freedom, new friends, and a major step towards adulthood. Today, the lead-up to college has spiraled out of control, and arrival on campus represents so much more: a sought-after prize that justifies a decade (or more!) of sacrifice.

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As students work tirelessly to perfect their college essays and try desperately to increase their ACT scores following years and years of pressure, they often can’t help but develop very unrealistic expectations about the end goals that they are trying to achieve with so much hard work. This idealized version of college certainly doesn’t leave room for imagining days caught in the rain without an umbrella, courses with terrible professors, evenings missing family and friends from home, or poor scores earned during the first round of exams.

When the bad days come - and there will be bad days, even at Harvard - students are stunned and surprised. They often start thinking something is wrong with them or that they cannot handle college altogether.  95% of the time, nothing is wrong at all; they are simply experiencing the ups and downs of daily life. Because this happens so often, I find it increasingly important to guide families during the college application process to maintain a realistic viewpoint, and I encourage parents to have discussions with their children about the realities of college and the “real world.”  

The better perspective these students bring with them to their freshman year of college, the less likely they will feel as if the world is crashing down around them when they are no longer in the top 10% of their class, get their first C in a course, or aren’t getting along with their roommate. 

Of course, there are also situations when something more serious is at play. Should a student come home from a break or their first year and not want to return, or transfer to another school, all is not lost.  Here at DC College Counseling, we not only serve high school students and their families that are embarking on the college application process for the first time, we also enjoy working with students who would like to transfer to a better-fit school.  Every year we assist students from a variety of backgrounds who were unhappy with their first college selection.  

Many of our clients are interested to learn that countless schools, such as UVA, have much higher acceptance rates for transfer students than incoming freshmen.  In fact, we find that students who do transfer schools often have better and more options available to them than when they applied to college during high school.  No matter what your family seeks or needs, always know that many options exist and we are here to help.

This year, I am thankful for WOW Writing Workshop!

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It is finally that time of year again: everything has settled down, almost all applications are in, and we at DC College Counseling can reflect on the entire admissions cycle while everything is still fresh in our minds. Without question, the best decision that we made for the Class of 2019 was to undergo training in the WOW Writing Workshop method. As soon as I finished, I knew that we had to put it into use immediately, which we did! I’m happy to report that it was wildly successful, resulting in the best set of college essays I have ever seen - truly.

We are absolutely certain that this tried and true approach is the single best way to coach students to build essays that will result in acceptance letters from their top-choice schools, and I am excited to share a bit more about it here.  Students with a variety of writing skills and abilities are able to craft thoughtfully written stories that showcase who they are and why colleges should select them. Best of all, it’s not a painful process in the slightest!

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the WOW Writing Workshop is its focus on using the student’s voice - not mine, the essay coaches in our office, or their parents. I know firsthand that undergraduate admissions departments can instantly spot an essay that a student did not actually write (check out this article from the New York Times for more on that topic). Through the WOW Writing Workshop, on the other hand, all students are given the command to use their own voice and truly sell themselves in an authentic way.

The guided step-by-step program begins with understanding the essay prompts, such as those belonging to the Common Application and the Coalition Application.  This first step is critical to writing a series of captivating essays, as students can often miss the mark when they just jump right in to outlining the story they wish to tell.

The subsequent steps that lead up to the actual writing of the essay include brainstorming exercises, story ideas and themes centralized around what the student wants the admissions office to learn about him or her beyond test scores, activities and awards.  Instead of students regurgitating information seen in other parts of their application, the essays that allow students to stand out and shine, displaying unique aspects of their personalities, leadership styles or defining moments that shaped who they are or what they wish to study in their undergraduate curriculum.

Each step of the WOW Writing Workshop is matched with a video and set of exercises to keep each student on task and accountable.  This ensures that by Step 5, “Write Draft 1,” students are confident that they are answering the prompt correctly and to their best ability.  After the first draft is written, the remaining steps of the workshop focus on polishing and refining.

When it comes to revisions, the WOW Writing Workshop trains students to see their essays with a fresh set of eyes.  Alongside the students, the essay coaches and I will ask questions to fill in any potential storyline gaps and encourage additional detailed descriptions to really set the scene before tackling grammar and spelling corrections.  In the final two steps of the program, we will examine the essay and its prompt with a fine-tooth comb.  At the conclusion of the process, students will hold an exceptionally written essay that exhibits the “WOW factor.”

I have to admit that the last benefit of this program was somewhat unexpected. I have heard from a number of senior parents this year who felt that the process actually helped their students become better writers as a whole; not only were their students taking the steps needed to maximize the likelihood of acceptance letters from the schools of their dreams, they were simultaneously developing much-needed skills for the future. We are very excited to continue WOW with our next crop of students in the Class of 2020!