Conversations before College: WHO you are matters more than WHERE you go

Conversations Before CollegeMoms and Daughters, ThailandWho You Are Matters MoreI just spent spring break with ten high school senior girls and some of their moms. Several of these girls know where they’ll be heading to college in the fall, but others are still anxiously waiting to hear about acceptances. Since it was spring break, we stayed off the dreaded college topic as much as possible and just enjoyed ourselves. After all, we’ve been dwelling on college talk enough for the past year (or more), and it’s just not that fun to talk about SAT scores in plain view of a glistening sea.

For many of these hard-working, college-bound girls, the focus of most of their conversations with their parents and other adults over the past few years has been college: grades, test scores, college tours, applications, etc. If you’re the parent of a high school junior or senior, you know the drill. You also know that notifications from university admissions offices will arrive over the next few weeks, and soon, everyone should know where they’re going.

Thus opens a magical window of almost six months where your conversations WON’T be about getting in to college anymore. Can I hear a “hallelujah” anyone?

Instead, the talk can turn to some even more important topics, including how to make the best of the college years.

With my not-so-little girl

With my not-so-little girl

I’ve been thinking about important conversations to have with my daughter before she starts this next phase of life. Some of these talks have already happened, but many need to be brought up again, just in case. I have several “Before you leave for college, I want to talk with you about something really important…” conversations in the works.

Besides parents, I have a special group of Sunshine Parenting readers who I just vacationed with. I’m dedicating this and future “conversations” posts to those girls (who like reading my parenting advice) and for any other parents who want to start a list of topics to cover before college drop-off day.

HOW you go to college is much more important than WHERE you go.

“Going to a prestigious college doesn’t make you successful; you must do that for yourself. It’s not where you go to college that matters, it’s how you go to college.”
-Dr. Tim Jordan, Does it matter where you go to college?

With all the talk about getting into the “best” college, I think parents (and college students) sometimes lose sight of the fact that a specific university will not guarantee a child’s success in life. In fact, based on the book referenced in Dr. Jordan’s article (Frank Bruni’s Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be), “the majority of American-born CEOs of the top Fortune 500 companies did not attend elite universities, and there was no pattern in where they went to school.”

Having attended an “elite” university myself, I can personally attest that a different, smaller school, with professors and an advisory program more focused on undergraduates, would have benefited me greatly.  Partially due to my own lack of maturity, I did not have the tools or resources I needed to go deeper than a decent GPA and a BA degree in a field I was only moderately interested in. So, although my Stanford degree sounds great to people, the truth is that—in my chosen field of work—I educated myself through post-graduate reading, classes, and eventually a graduate degree.

As my daughter and her friends head off to college—whether it be to their “dream” elite university, a large public university, or a smaller, lesser-known school—they should know that no matter where they wind up, there will be resources in place to help them grow and thrive. But it will be up to them to take advantage of those things.

WHO you are is more important than WHERE you go.

Another message I want to convey to my daughter and her friends is that their character and reputation are of incredible value, moreso than their book-smarts. Reputation is often now referred to as “personal brand,” and it’s something that starts forming in childhood, then is further developed in person (and online) from middle school on. Your personal brand is what you’re known for.

Here are a few questions to ask:
• What are you known for?
• Is that who you want to be in college and beyond?

One way to help kids assess their online personal brands (regardless if they’re on-point or not) is to scroll through texts they’ve sent, photos and posts they’ve created, and comments they’ve made, and check for themes. Do they sound self-absorbed or prone to gossip? Or do their online comments seem supportive and encouraging? Is their online brand what they want it to be?

Another way to assess reputation is to have them ask close friends and teachers to honestly assess their character. How do people in their “inner circle” view them? What about people in their community who don’t know them as well?

I think, at this crossroads—which also offers a great opportunity for a fresh start (if needed)—it’s an ideal time to think about who they really are as people, what’s important to them, and how they are letting the world know that information.

I should add here that conversations about “sexting” and the damage such foolishness can cause are extremely important to have, but there’s a lot more to a positive online reputation than just refraining from launching naked photos into cyberspace.

Our kids’ characters online—and in person—are important, because those reputations are how the world sees who they are forever. If you haven’t had the conversation already, I definitely recommend talking about different scenarios and how actions now can impact their reputation and future opportunities. The media have given us loads of examples of what NOT to do, so share those stories or discuss things your children and their friends have posted, along with potential repercussions. You’ll be glad you did.

A strong character extends to academic integrity as well. Given the rash of cheating incidents in recent years, I wasn’t surprised to hear that a 2014 Harvard University study found that the majority (80%) of the 10,000 students surveyed believed their accomplishments mattered more to their parents than their character: “Students reported that their parents appreciated achievement much more than happiness or kindness.”

I think this is one of those situations where our children will learn from seeing our reactions to different things they do. If the biggest accolades they get from us are about grades, then that’s what they’ll perceive is most important to us. I recently had the opportunity in my own family to reiterate that great character matters much more to me than excellent grades. One of my kids, together with friends, discovered a way to complete homework assignments using answer keys found online; that same week, another child of mine scored low on a science test after seeking extra help from the teacher and studying for several hours. The teachable moment here was an easy one: I explained to both that I would rather they work honestly with effort and earn subpar grades than cheat their way to high, un-earned marks. I also let the school know about the answer key my child discovered online and laid down the law at home: there would be no accessing anything online if it happened again.

Finally, we don’t have to be college-bound freshmen to take a fresh look at our own reputations and personal brands. In fact, all of us full-grown adults would be wise to look at how we are representing ourselves to others—in-person and online—then double-check to ensure that both are in alignment with who we authentically believe ourselves to be. Conversations with our kids about who they are and who others think they are won’t hit the mark if we parents aren’t living and representing ourselves authentically.

Stay tuned for more “Conversations before College,” including next week’s post about alcohol use.

Heading to College

Heading to College

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Ready for Adulthood Check-List
College Touring 101
Who’s Not Ready for College?
Does it matter where you go to college?, article from
Where you go is not who you’ll be, book by Frank Bruni
Parents value grades over kindness,
The Road to Character, David Brooks (on my reading list after hearing him interviewed)
The Book of Virtues, William Bennett
Building Moral Intelligence, Michele Borba
Cheating incidents at a few of my alma maters (many more occurring elsewhere, too) :
Cheating Huffington Post
Tutor Pleads Guilty, CBS Local
Colleges Grapple with Cheating, Los Angeles Times

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