Thursday, February 11, 2010


My daughter is 16 going on 17, a junior in high school. We've begun discussions of colleges, SAT scores, and her future.

Many of my peers in healthcare management have college bound children and are having the same dinner table conversations - what constitutes success, what college to choose, how to work together over the next year to guard against the stress acceleration every high school student is feeling.

College admissions should not be a beauty contest for parents to judge their success in child rearing based on acceptance letters from Ivy League institutions. College admissions should be about matching the needs of the individual with an institutional culture, location, and teaching style that builds self-confidence and resilience.

What do I mean?

I attended Stanford, UCSF, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Harvard, and MIT. My post secondary education lasted 17 years from 1980-1997.

My personality type was a bit odd - I majored in those topics that were most confusing to me. I speculated that if I could master my weakest areas, I would become a resilient life long learner of anything that would come my way.

My daughter is talented in ways that I am not (the visual arts, foreign languages, and mathematics that requires spatial sense). No doubt this is because my left brain (math, science, engineering) combined with my wife's right brain (arts, philosophy, creativity) to create a whole brain. My daughter is seeking to define herself, discover those areas in which she can be truly excellent, and build self-confidence.

She would not thrive at a large, urban school, filled with thousands of anonymous peers. She would not thrive in a competitive academic culture which rewards privation, suggesting that if you're not suffering, you're not learning.

She's seeking a school that is small to medium sized, rural or suburban, located in New England, with a supportive culture that can polish a lovely and intelligent young woman into an assertive but not aggressive adult.

With the right encouragement and opportunities, she'll be challenged but not overwhelmed, hard working but not fatigued, and encouraged to find her unique place in the world.

I do not define success as fame, fortune, or Google hit count. I define success as resilience to navigate the world, enthusiasm to get up each day because you love what you do, and happiness with the people around you.

So, you go girl. Find a college that makes you blossom. Your parents will be there, proud of its fit for you, not its ranking in US News and World Report.


Steph said...

I like your definition of success. What comes first, though? Knowing what your life's purpose is and focusing on it unblinkingly? Or having that foundation already prepared, supported and enhanced by significant others?

Anonymous said...

I love how you have developed this understanding of success and hopefully are applying it to your daughter, who most likely will be succeeding in an environment in 10 years than none of us thought existed. A true global economy and society (I hope), where her peers aren't from disparate parts of the country, but from disparate parts of the globe.
My only contention is that you put the East-Coast Liberal Arts Education bias on full display in thinking that its environs are more supportive of her development than a grand City's University. I believe (even after attending one of the exact Colleges you mention in New England) that it isn't the school's location or 'vibe' that will foster your daughter's growth, but the people she comes into contact with.
I spent 8 years in Ivy League towns and the most important education I received was the knowledge that for every student that was developed into a true academic, supported by faculty, friends, and family, there were also students whose experience was tarnished by squandering their opportunities because there was pressure to do so. Going to a college or university to be a part of the fabric of a wonderful community is dependent on the student desiring to be a part of it, it is not automatic.
I am in no way suggesting that your daughter won't make the right decisions and take the best from her education as possible, but wouldn't that be just as likely (or unlikely) at any academic institution?
Now that I am back as an adult living in a college town (a big 'ol state University in the middle of America), I see daily the division between those enmeshed in their surrounding community and those that are not taking advantage of what is around them. I don't think it matters what the institution's name is, but rather what decisions the student makes. People can turn their college experience into anything they want, wherever they are, whether good or bad.

I wish you and your family great success in searching for her perfect school, but more importantly, I wish she look at all aspects of what is available at a college and make decisions that will enrich her mind and soul while filling out her experiences that will (unfortunately) never be available again (unless in your 30s you can take another semester abroad and no one told me about that.)

All the best,
A faithful reader and supporter

Tom D said...

I had my daughters take an aptitude test that gave them a very good idea of direction of majors to work towards.


The company started in Boston area and has been doing testing for years. I have found all people that took their test to find it correct and informational.

It has been especially useful for my daughters with all A's in school. They were able to find what areas they are better at doing compared to what they got A's in but had to work harder than other people to get the A's.

One daughter changed from nursing to engineering and loves it. The other daughter started exploring ART and Journalism. She just received state recognition for her art which confirms what the test identified.

Unknown said...

Your daughter should consider the University of Hartford. I'm a graduate as well as our two daughters. It is an amazing institution!

John said...


Bravo. My daughter picked her own school (Belmont in TN), picked her major business/finance, and graduated last spring.

She has been charting her own course for some time now, based mainly on what she really likes (not what I wanted or what anyone else wanted). I love it.

There is noting better than watching her succeed on her terms.

Again to your message - Bravo.

John Feikema

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. How fantastic your daughter is on this journey. You and your wife have a lot to be proud of. As a mother who is watching her son go through the same process, I keep telling him, "Where you start is not where you will end up. Find a place that suits you and explore all the opportunities before you."

WDavidStephenson said...

From the description, she obviously wants to go to Haverford. We'll just have to rejigger regional boundaries a bit to make PA a New England state

Doug Robinson said...

I have spent 50 years contemplating the factors that led to my college choice. It did little to advance my knowledge in the technical trade which I was to follow since I landed in the Information Industry in 1963. But it did everything to prepare me for the pursuit of life in general. They taught me to think,write and enjoy knowledge. It was a liberal education. The best, but I can't recommend my alma mater since it is a men's school. But does have a womens college collocated with it. To bad about Radcliffe, I think they made a mistake. Vassar made a mistake, Wells, Keuka, Skidmore all did the same.
Small, liberal arts, small community, Northeast, top ranked William Smith will not make that mistake. Their motto "Not Williams, not Smith, and certainly not Hobart" says it all. Take a hard look.

MammaGeek said...

Great to see your interest is in having your daughter find a place where she can define herself in a supportive environment where her competition is herself.

I do not envy you this time because it is particularly difficult to judge from just going to a campus for the interview and the tour.

My daughter wanted an education that would give her an opportunity to follow her passion (marine science) but also allow her the freedom to experiment with subjects she was interested in but not exposed to. Her other criteria was a small womens college.

She had her heart set on Wellesley after auditing a physics class and walking through the beautiful campus until my husband observed that the none of the young women we saw or met smiled and the people in the admissions offices seemed rather stiff and unfriendly.

We went out to visit Smith and Holyoke and the campuses were so much more animated. She loved the classes she audited (did a full day at Holyoke) and the women talked about their love of the colleges. She finally decided upon Smith because it was closer to Amherst and UMass which had many courses she could take in later years.
My daughter entered Smith as a quiet, reserved young girl who really did not want to stand out and would not volunteer for anything. At Smith, Lauren found her voice, took courses in Japanese Buddhist Art and Public Policy, used an electron microscope, took a graduate level marine science courses at UMass, played hockey, worked for the Smith IT dept and chaired Conbust, the largest woman-run anime convention in the US. She left Smith with more than a degree; she gained confidence, developed lifelong friendships and learned that she has no barriers except the ones she puts up.

John Halamka said...

Thanks so much to all of you. My daughter is following your comments closely. We'll be visiting several of your recommendations in April.

Anonymous said...

You might try St. Mary's college in St. Mary's, Maryland. [I know, it is not New England.]

It is a very small state college, 2,000 students, in a stunningly beautiful location on the Chesapeake Bay, with lots of water sports as a result. They have a very energetic, engaged student body, with lots of arts and a very good science program.

They also have a wonderful dining hall for the students, with a catering team that is dedicated to healthy living and local sourcing. Our son never felt the need to leave campus to seek out decent food, while our other son at a mega-versity gained 25 pounds and swears he will never eat another burger in his life.

Our son recently graduated from St. Mary's, after four years where he was able to explore both his interests in philosophy and his math. Like you, he majored in the things that were hardest, and ended up enjoying them immensely.

And, all your parents out there, he was offered a full time job, with a signing bonus, (to commence after graduation) before he started his senior year. He's been on the job for one year now and it is an ideal job for him with an ideal company.

Now, that's cool!

Anonymous said...

You and your family should all sit down and watch the '80s flick "Peggy Sue Got Married" with Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage. Its about high school, not college, but very insightful concerning how tricky it would be to go back in time and do everything over again if you had the chance. Would you try to manipulate or replicate what happens a second time around so your future is or isn't altered?