More Than Perfect Grades

Woe to the students of today. Many spend their High School years running themselves ragged (or are run ragged by their parents) with their sole goal of being accepted into a ‘top college’.  Now, in no way will I say that gaining acceptance at one of a handful of outstanding colleges is not a worthy goal. Neither can I assert that the advantages to be gained from graduating from a prestigious university or college are not worth significant effort on the part of the student. Rather, I wish to highlight the important fact that the focus on perfection that most often hallmarks this goal is unnecessary, and perhaps even more detrimental to student admissions success than supportive of it.

Yes, colleges and universities, especially the more selective of them, seek students who take the most challenging classes available to them.  It is also true that these institutions look for students who achieve strong results in the face of academic challenges. In addition to noteworthy in-class achievements, strong SAT/ACT scores are indeed sought. However, strong scores are NOT the equivalent of a call for score perfection. University and college admission teams look to such scores primarily to confirm the academic performance they see reported on student transcripts. Additionally, scores that indicate equal competency in critical reading, math and writing are also being measured. This means that there is NO magic SAT total score result that will gain your student’s acceptance into the university of your dreams.  Know also that most prestigious post-secondary institutions will readily admit that they reject more than 70 per cent of students with outstanding academic records and perfect SAT scores.  The reason for such a statistic is two-fold. First, there are many more excellent students than there are places for them at the elite universities. After all, as the world continues to open and incomes worldwide rise, the pool of students who apply for places at the top institutions grows, and the number of places at such places is largely fixed – thus the decline in acceptance rates.

How, then, do universities and colleges choose among all the excellent students within their applications pools? The answer to this question is central to understanding what specific characteristics colleges and universities, particularly elite institutions, actually seek in their students. Moreover, most institutions acknowledge that these ‘other’ characteristics are, in fact, equally or more critical to student success at the college or university level than being academically talented!

From a university admissions perspective, brilliant students are the baseline. This means that all that tutoring, hours of SAT classes and ‘stick – carrot psychology’ that it took for your child to reach and remain at the top of his or her class only gets them to the lowest rung on the admissions ladder. If it makes you feel better, know that everyone at this level is pretty smart. In fact, in all likelihood, most of the students are just as smart as, or even smarter than, your student. Knowing this, post-secondary institutions focus on the qualities that differentiate smart students from one another in order to create talented groups of people who will, together, make the university and their individual classes better than they could be without their individual presence.

It is at this point that the student who has done little but study suffers in the admissions process. Even being super smart is not enough to get a student into elite colleges unless the student can also clearly demonstrate that he or she also possesses the skills and desire to not only learn, but also to share their talents, enthusiasm and creativity with the rest of the university or college. Students and families should not underestimate the significance of this insistence on useful and shared talent, and it should be stated that the development of the ability to do so successfully cannot be manufactured. University life, especially at elite colleges, is rigorous and challenging. The challenges come not just in the form of heavy reading, research papers and expectations of brilliant in-class oratory contributions, but also in managing workloads, setting schedules, getting laundry done, learning ones’ limits and generally making good use of the amazing array of human, research and facilities-related resources available.

Colleges and universities are the engines of innovation and new thought, but students do not benefit from all of this simply through osmosis. Contrary to popular thought in certain international circles, students are not supposed to just surf the current. Their much anticipated growth and transformation into bi-lingual, well-spoken, critically-thinking, value-adding post-grads who will return ‘home’ and make a difference is contingent upon their readiness to actively participate and contribute to their own university lives.

Readiness, however, develops over time. It comes from developmental years (ages 3-18) spent getting to know oneself and getting to know and understand others relative to this sense of self. It comes of trying new things, failing at them and bouncing back to try again. It comes of learning what one can do, suffering the natural consequences of doing it poorly and building the confidence needed to ‘do it better’.  Unfortunately, this process is often impeded at varying levels by parents trying to ‘improve’ the future prospects of their offspring. Improvement, unfortunately, comes in insulating and sometimes handicapping forms that render students in possession of fewer key skills that universities and colleges insist upon, especially at the more selective levels. Specifically, this includes self-awareness, self-determination, self-motivation, self-confidence – the combination of which I term resilience.

It is these skills that are developed when your student joins Model United Nations, plays basketball, or runs for Student Council and loses. It is these skills that are learned when they have over committed and turned in a poor paper or missed a deadline. Through both success and failure, students find their place in the world and grow brave enough to go their teacher, admit over commitment and negotiate a new deadline. These are the skills it takes not only to grow into their best person, but also to develop the ability to stick it out when they find out there are a lot of people smarter than them, that they have to try harder or they have to advocate for themselves. It is through these demonstrated skills that students propel themselves into the universities that so many of you hold dear. Without them, even students who make it into the higher echelons of undergraduate education may fail. For instance, some 25 per cent of Chinese Ivy League students drop out of college before graduation.

So parents, please back off a bit. The support you provide and the values that you instill around the value of education are crucial to your child putting education as a priority in his or her life, but sacrificing personal growth and development for the sake of a grade or even top scores may ultimately backfire. The very difficulties and small failures you fear are exactly what it will take to make your student truly able to achieve at the highest level.

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Tess Robinson