• Dr. Thom

Starting with the End


Photo by Muhammad Rizwan on Unsplash

How do you define a successful college search?


Is it based on the type of college to which your son or daughter is admitted? The amount of scholarship money they receive at that college? The ranking of the college?


There is a reason this is one of the first questions I ask a parent when we’re deciding whether to work with a family. You’re deciding if you want to work with us; we are also evaluating the fit.


Every college counselor I have ever met can tell stories about parents who keep track of how many students enroll in certain colleges as a measure of the quality of their child’s high school. One counselor with whom I recently spoke relayed an account of one parent who requested admission decision data as he was tracking enrollment trends from the high school to the Forbes top 100 schools. According to my colleague, this was justification for the investment being made via the private school tuition he was paying.


To be clear, I do appreciate the notion of education as an investment. It is just that I have a different expectation on what kind of return on that investment is worthwhile, as compared with this parent. Everything we do as parents teaches and informs our children on how the world works, from what we say, the standards we hold for our children and ourselves, to the expectations we communicate. When we set the expectation that the goal of the college search is to find the most prestigious option available, we are teaching a pattern that students will follow. These patterns become like scripts for a play or movie starring our children. When we place status-attainment as the primary goal of education, we should not be surprised when there is a life transition coming up for our kids, they will look for the next most prestigious option available. This pattern persists, and passed down to the next generation. Why else do you think that working in investment banking is one of the most popular options pursued by Ivy League graduates? Do you really think it is because they have a passion for hedge fund management?


It is often moments like this that remind me of the scene from C.S. Lewis’ Alice in Wonderland:


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.


Where we end up in life is a result of either intentionality or autopilot. We either determine our path, or we default to learned life scripts and the paths of least resistance. That’s it. So like the Cheshire Cat, we too should be concerned a “good deal, on where [our children] want to get to,” and helping them set intentions in their lives to be growth-oriented and character-driven.


So what is your definition of a successful college search, or a successful education for that matter?


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