MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern Family

Posted on March 30th, 2015, 1 Comment

Modern Family: Season 6, Episode 18, Spring Break

Alex Doesn’t Get Into Harvard

The Framework
Tonight we see more evidence that the kids are growing up and that their parents are still learning how to adjust. Phil feels a bit threatened when Luke is able to literally fit into his shoes and best him at the “banjonic and trampolitan arts.” Mitch, who wrongly believes that Lily needs to be rescued from camp, ends up embarrassing her in front of the other eight-year-olds. But the storyline that held my attention was the one about Alex.

Alex’s day begins like this.
Claire: You’re still on that thing? What are you constantly looking at on your computer?
Alex: I’m just checking college acceptances. I mean, they should be posting them any day.
Claire: You cannot spend your entire spring break worrying about college admissions. You should go to that music festival thing with Haley. Do something fun. Learn to relax…
Haley: Uh, I can’t bring Alex to the festival because I am going for work to research new fashion trends. I need to blend in, you know? Everyone will think she’s a cop.
Alex: Well, I could sit here and worry and ruin my day, or I could go with Haley and ruin hers. I’ll grab my sunscreen.

While the girls are at the music festival, Claire calls to check on Alex.
Claire: Haley, are you with Alex? She’s not answering her phone.
Haley: Uh, yeah, yeah. We’re just a tiny bit separated right now, but, uh, she’s been acting a little strange.
Claire (opening Alex’s computer and her email): Oh, no… I was worried about this when you two left this morning. She didn’t get into Harvard.
Haley: Oh, thank God! That’s why she’s been acting so weird.

Then there’s this.
Haley: Alex! Alex, stop! I have been chasing you for, like, an hour! I know about Harvard.
Alex: How?
Haley: Mom saw on your computer.
Alex: And of course she told you, because privacy doesn’t mean anything. Why do things the right way? … I don’t care anymore! I’ve spent my entire life trying to be perfect, and where did it get me? I am in a field with 6,000 idiots!
Haley (as the crowd cheers): Okay, you are drawing more attention to yourself than the guy wearing a ferret as a scarf.

But then Haley continues. More thoughtfully. More helpfully.
Haley: Know what? I think that this is a good thing for you.
Alex: Can you just spare me today?
Haley: No. You’re obviously going to get into one of those snooty schools, and sometimes you’re gonna come in second or fourth, or maybe even tenth. But you’re gonna dust yourself off, maybe put on some lipstick for once, and keep going.
Alex: I’m allowed to feel bad about this, okay?
Haley: Look, you are a superstar! I’ve been saying since you were 10 you’re gonna be on the supreme court.
Alex: Thanks. But for the record, I’m gonna be a scientist.
Haley: Lab coat, robe – as long as something’s covering up your outfit, you’re gonna be just fine.

And when the girls return home, there’s this exchange.
Claire (holding a teddy bear wearing a “Harvard Sucks” t-shirt): There she is! Hi. I heard. I’m so sorry.
Alex: Uh, thanks, mom, but Haley already made me feel a little better about it. I just don’t really feel like talking right now. I kind of just want to change my password and get into bed.

Flipping the Frame: My Notes
Now’s the time that high school seniors are hearing back from the colleges they applied to. And like Alex, many of them are anxious.

Some of our kids will be getting rejection letters from the school they had their heart set on attending. In fact, if that school is one of the dozen or more most selective colleges in the nation, the odds of getting in have never been worse.

A generation ago acceptance rates hardly ever fell below 20% – even at the most elite institutions. In 2003, Harvard and Princeton became the first top undergraduate schools to have admission rates lower than 10%. Since then nearly a dozen top schools have fallen below that level.

Alex: What’s the point? Get straight A’s for 10 years, spend your summers building houses, drag your cello to school every day, write the perfect essay, and for what?! “No, thank you, Alex!” “We don’t want you, Alex!”

Take heart, Alex. Admission offices are pursuing a more ideal class more than they are a perfect student. They claim they’re after creating a better educational experience through a better class. But the most competitive applicants couldn’t get more amazing. And these super-star applicants aren’t multiplying, they’re just applying to more places.

In truth, it’s the boom in the number of applications per student – more than the growth of the actual pool of students – that is driving down the admission rates. A generation ago, only 1 in 10 college-bound kids applied to seven or more schools. Now 1 in 4 do.

It’s a vicious cycle. Kids, seeing the admission rates at the most selective schools falling, respond by sending out more applications. This causes the more selective colleges to reject even more, causing their admit rates to fall further. Which in turn means that next year’s seniors send out even more apps.

What’s a Mom to Do

If your teen is just beginning their college search, encourage them to view the landscape from a bigger perspective. When my kids were high school juniors, I gave them the latest edition of “Best Colleges” by Princeton Review with the assurance that we’d happily help them pay for any college in the guide. The 2015 edition includes 379 colleges ranked on multiple lists, including the happiest students. (Click here to read more about this annual college guide.)

John Katzman, who founded the Princeton Review, encourages students to look at the top 100 superior schools instead of just focusing on the top 10 elite schools. Katzman notes that while the most elite schools have kept the size of their undergraduate student bodies pretty much the same, many selective schools (like the U of Michigan, U of CA at Berkeley, and Boston University) have significantly expanded the number they can accommodate. In addition, other schools (like New York University and Southern California) have upgraded to the ranks of those that are generally considered elite. Katzman says that these two trends taken together mean that if a student applies widely within the universe of the 100 or even the 50 most highly regarded colleges, their odds are better than they were decades ago that one will take them.

If you’ve got a college-bound senior, here are a few things to keep in mind as the college letters roll in.

Don’t treat a rejection letter like a disaster. Your reaction will affect your teen’s reaction. So remind yourself (and your teen) that students with a determination to succeed can thrive at almost any school. Although your teen may think that their first choice college is the only path to success, in reality a great education is available at most schools.

The most prestigious school on your teen’s list may not be the best one for them. It may be the most fun to name-drop, but it might not be the place where they’ll be the happiest. If students keep an open mind, there’s a good chance they’ll end up loving wherever they go. But if they don’t love it, they aren’t stuck there. They can always transfer.

Many of the most successful people were rejected before succeeding. This very long list of successful folks includes Steven Spielberg who was turned down by both USC and UCLA film schools. He ended up attending the less prestigious Cal State, and then went on to become one of the world’s most popular and influential filmmakers. The thing all these folks have in common is that they refused to let others determine what their talents and interests were.

Getting rejected by a dream school can give your teen a chance to step back and reevaluate what they really value in a school. It’s easy for a teen to get caught up in the prestige of a big-name school and overlook some qualities they wouldn’t have liked if they’d ended up there. Getting rejected can motivate a teen to step back and prioritize the things they want most from a college experience regardless of the school’s name.

When it comes to getting a job, where your teen goes to college probably won’t make or break the deal. While seeing Harvard or Stanford at the top of a resume might impress an employer, there are things that impress them much more. A recent Newsweek survey found that when it comes to hiring, employers value experience, confidence, and even appearance above where the applicant attended school.

Like Claire, we too want to help when our kids get rejected. But we too long for proof that all that our kids have done – the late night studying, sports practices, theatre or band rehearsals, chess or robotics club – has paid off. Rejection can make us feel like our kids don’t quite measure up. And that somehow we don’t either.

So when a college rejection letter comes, it can help to take a few minutes to remember what you want most. After all, a mom’s dream come true is not just to have our kids get in and make it through college. What we really want is for them to be able to support themselves doing work that they love – work that engages and fulfills them. And progress towards this goal can be achieved at almost any college.

Your Parenting Experiences
What was your college application experience like? How much were your parents involved in the process? What did they do that helped? What didn’t help? What do you think your kids would say about your involvement?

Sources and Resources: The Best 379 Colleges, 2015 Edition by the Princeton Review; “The Elite Squeeze” by Frank Bruni in Time (March 30, 2015); “Why Being Rejected by Your Dream School Isn’t the End of the World” by Jessica Kane in the Huffington Post; “Application Inflation: When Is Enough Enough?” by Eric Hoover in the New York Times; “College Rejection: Hey It’s OK If You Didn’t Get Into Your Dream School” in Huff Post Teen

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1 comment

  • The part I was frustrated by in this episode was the underage drinking. Alex clearly has a bright future ahead of her, but she could have thrown it all away. Underage drinking citations can also influence admissions these days. Though it’s perfectly healthy to take a break from the stress of college applications, I think she chose an unhealthy way to deal with her disappointment.

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