father and daughter researching dream schoolYour child has just passionately announced his or her dream school…now what?

What is a “dream school” anyway?

Although every college is different – and surely every dream is different – “dream schools” typically have two things in common:

  • The school is highly competitive for admissions
  • The school is well-known for a particular field of study that your son or daughter is especially interested in.

Do your homework

Before you engage in expectation management, do some digging around to learn about your student’s dream school and their preferred field of study.

Understand the field of study your son or daughter is interested in

Before you start to encourage or dissuade your son or daughter from pursuing a career in Endocrinology, Game Theory, Evolutionary Biology, or Materials Science – make sure you understand what it means. Fields change names, and new fields are being created all the time.

Identify the top schools for this field of study

Now, go check out which schools are best known for this particular field of study. Don’t rely on one research tool. Use several. Make a spreadsheet and really impress your student with how much you care. Where does The Illustrious Dream School fall on the list? Are there other, better schools nearby?

Understand the admissions criteria for The Illustrious Dream School (and other top schools in this field of study)

Now start to dig in and understand how your student’s profile (grades, admissions tests, etc.) compare to that of the typical student admitted to The Illustrious Dream School and other schools like it. Now is also a good time to identify which schools you can realistically afford. Use the Red Kite Matching Engine to get a better grasp on what type of financial aid is available to you and your student.

Great Expectations (Managed)

Armed with all this extensive research, you are prepared to help your student understand the chances of gaining admission to his or her dream college. You know the drill. If your student’s profile is similar to or better than those of recently accepted students, you can encourage him or her in good conscience. If your student’s profile falls a bit short of those recently accepted, you can help bring some reality to the situation and perhaps readjust expectations.

Ah, but here’s the thing: because you’ve done your homework, you understand your student’s preferred area of study, and where that program is offered. That means that you can help your student pursue his or her passions by offering assistance with applications to other schools that have the same program as the dream school!

Suddenly you’ve re-framed the conversation. It’s no longer this binary “should you, or shouldn’t you, apply to your dream university?”

Now, you are having a conversation that sounds like: “Let’s list and rank order (in order of likelihood of acceptance) all of the schools that are good for your field of study.”
So much less pressure. Nice work, Mom and Dad.

The “Sameness Trap”

After you’ve done your homework, you’ll probably feel like a sports fan who can rattle off the stats of a favorite baseball player. You’ll be able to recite the typical GPA, SAT/ACT score, and class rank of students admitted to The Illustrious Dream School.

Let’s get something straight – those stats are definitely important. But don’t get stuck in what I like to call the “sameness trap,” where you think that your student must, in every way, resemble the typical student. Not true. Your student can – and should – be him or herself.

The admissions offices of colleges and universities try to craft a well-balanced entering class. They don’t want everyone to be the same. A friend of mine – an admissions counselor at a highly competitive school – once told me, “Look, we could fill our entire entering class with only valedictorians who volunteered at homeless shelters. But we don’t . . . because we want our entering class to represent lots of different viewpoints. So we accept lots of different types of students.”

So, knowing that, what do you do?

One strategy is to highlight your student’s unique interests and experiences. Highlight the clubs and programs where he or she has demonstrated a real, enduring passion. Say, your student – who is applying to be pre-med – is really interested in French Literature.

Encourage him or her to talk about French romantic poets, or about experience in tutoring classmates in French, and research into your student’s French ancestry. This allows your student’s true self to shine through.

Oh, and aside from making your student a more compelling admissions candidate, you’ll be subconsciously praising the deepest parts of his or her identity.

Course Correcting

After all of your strategic planning, guess what? Your student may decide that The Illustrious Dream School isn’t the best choice. Or that really interesting field of study isn’t so interesting. Or both! This is not a sign of immaturity or fickleness. Quite the opposite, actually!

If you (as the parent) have done your homework and shared it with your student, you want his or her ideas about dream schools to change and mature. Indeed, let’s praise our kids when they kick the tires on their dreams and sometimes change their minds.

They learned that smart lesson from us!

For more resources on helping your student apply to college, including their dream school, check out these articles: