Thirteen years ago, when I was a relatively new teacher, stumbling around my classroom on wobbly legs, I had to call a student’s mother to inform her that I would be initiating disciplinary proceedings against her daughter for plagiarism, and that furthermore, her daughter would receive a zero for the plagiarized paper.
“You can’t do that. She didn’t do anything wrong,” the mother informed me, enraged.
“But she did. I was able to find entire paragraphs lifted off of web sites,” I stammered.
“No, I mean she didn’t do it. I did. I wrote her paper.”
I don’t remember what I said in response, but I’m fairly confident I had to take a moment to digest what I had just heard. And what would I do, anyway? Suspend the mother? Keep her in for lunch detention and make her write “I will not write my daughter’s papers using articles plagiarized from the Internet” one hundred times on the board? In all fairness, the mother submitted a defense: her daughter had been stressed out, and she did not want her to get sick or overwhelmed.
In the end, my student received a zero and I made sure she re-wrote the paper. Herself. Sure, I didn’t have the authority to discipline the student’s mother, but I have done so many times in my dreams.
While I am not sure what the mother gained from the experience, the daughter gained an understanding of consequences, and I gained a war story. I don’t even bother with the old reliables anymore: the mother who “helps” a bit too much with the child’s math homework, the father who builds the student’s science project. Please. Don’t waste my time.
The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.
I believed my accumulated compendium of teacher war stories were pretty good — until I read a study out of Queensland University of Technology, by Judith Locke, et. al., a self-described “examination by parenting professionals of the concept of overparenting.”
Overparenting is characterized in the study as parents’ “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” In an attempt to understand such behaviors, the authors surveyed psychologists, guidance counselors, and teachers. The authors asked these professionals if they had witnessed examples of overparenting, and left space for descriptions of said examples. While the relatively small sample size and questionable method of subjective self-reporting cast a shadow on the study’s statistical significance, the examples cited in the report provide enough ammunition for a year of dinner parties.
Some of the examples are the usual fare: a child isn’t allowed to go to camp or learn to drive, a parent cuts up a 10 year-old’s food or brings separate plates to parties for a 16 year-old because he’s a picky eater. Yawn. These barely rank a “Tsk, tsk” among my colleagues. And while I pity those kids, I’m not that worried. They will go out on their own someday and recover from their overprotective childhoods.
What worry me most are the examples of overparenting that have the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence. According to the authors, parents guilty of this kind of overparenting “take their child’s perception as truth, regardless of the facts,” and are “quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature.”
This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.” One study participant described the problem this way:
I have worked with quite a number of parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) of their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, cooperative and solution focused manner, which would benefit both child and school.
These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn. You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.
I’m not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children’s teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.
I’m done fantasizing about ways to make that mom from 13 years ago see the light. That ship has sailed, and I did the best I could for her daughter. Every year, I reassure some parent, “This setback will be the best thing that ever happened to your child,” and I’ve long since accepted that most parents won’t believe me. That’s fine. I’m patient. The lessons I teach in middle school don’t typically pay off for years, and I don’t expect thank-you cards.
I have learned to enjoy and find satisfaction in these day-to-day lessons, and in the time I get to spend with children in need of an education. But I fantasize about the day I will be trusted to teach my students how to roll with the punches, find their way through the gauntlet of adolescence, and stand firm in the face of the challenges — challenges that have the power to transform today’s children into resourceful, competent, and confident adults.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend time walking around farms in South Georgia as part of a leadership program. It was fascinating to hear farmers’ perspectives on everything from supply and demand to organic growing practices; from their daily monitoring and speculation about consumer behavior for their crops to the evolution of technology in farm equipment.
What struck me in particular was a simple concept: as a farmer, your job is to put a seed in the ground. Then you water it, fertilize it, pray over it, watch it grow, lose sleep worrying about it, and ultimately harvest it months later.If you’ve read this blog for long, you know that (like the old school Tootsie Roll commercials) pretty much anything I see or hear reminds me of college admission in some way. That day was no different. Standing out in those fields, I could not help thinking about the months ahead and all the planning, time, work, and care it will take to enroll our next class.
Fall is all about travel and recruitment—putting seeds in the ground, if you will. In fact, I started writing this post right before midnight on a Friday, and we’re still 30 minutes from landing at the Atlanta airport. This trip began in a very similar fashion to most trips in the fall: in the dark, as I crept out of my house Tuesday morning around 5 a.m. to catch a flight. Over the course of the next month, I’ll take three similar trips—early mornings, late nights, rental cars, and hotel breakfasts. That’s what you do in the fall in college admission: travel, shake hands, give talks, pass out business cards— rinse and repeat. (SIDE NOTE: The next time you see a college admission representative at your school or local college fair, ask them how they’re doing and give them a restaurant recommendation, or a good place to go for a walk or run.)Winter is all about reading applications. Like a farmer caring for and regularly inspecting crops, this season is long and protracted, with intensely critical monitoring and attention required throughout. There are no short cuts: tracking down transcripts, reading applications, ensuring test scores have been reported, reading applications, answering emails, reading applications, eating copious amounts of take-out food, reading applications. I mentioned reading applications, right? At Georgia Tech, we likely will receive more applications than we did last year— let’s conservatively say 38,000. To review these in our holistic process will take about 40 of us reading from mid-October to mid-March.
In the spring, we release admission decisions and immediately turn our attention to hosting admitted families trying to make a final college choice, as well as talking to prospective juniors and sophomores on their spring break barnstorm of college tours.
I relate to the farmer who is constantly gauging and adjusting to supply and demand. Based on applications and class size, our expected admit rate this year is around 20%, meaning we will deny admission to over 30,000 students (three times the number of applicants we had when I started at Tech). It’s not fun, and not why I got into this business. So spring is also about speaking with hundreds of incredibly talented students who are frustrated and deeply disappointed they were not offered admission. Ultimately, if our predictions are right, we will “yield” our crop… I mean class… of 2,900 students by the May 1 National Deposit Deadline.
I’m not that smart, and I’m no fortune teller. But college admission is cyclical, so I know these things are coming. It would be easy to look at the next eight months as time away from home and family in the fall; an over-caffeinated, pizza-fueled hibernation of sorts in the winter; and an oxymoronic persona of happy host/dream killer in this spring. (Anyone want a job?)
I GET to Do This
Immediately after leaving those farms in South Georgia, we heard from the Commissioner of Agriculture. One of the phrases he used was, “I get to do this.” His point was every day, every week, every month, and even every year, we make a choice about how we’ll approach life. Will our mentality be: “I have to do this” or “I need to do this”? Or, instead, “I get to do this.”?
That’s the phrase that went through my head early Saturday morning when I dragged myself from bed, shot Visine into my jet-lagged eyes, made a cup of coffee and headed out to coach a 7-year old girls’ soccer team. I get to do this!
That mindset fundamentally changes my outlook. I get to travel around the country to cities and states many people will never see. I get to read the applications of truly remarkable students who tell stories about innovative ideas, inspiring dreams, ambitious goals, tremendous impact, and amazing challenges they overcame. I get to spend months working closely with a caring, funny, smart, dedicated staff. I get to constantly meet new people and tell them about a college I love and believe in. I get to articulate the value of higher education and try to bring some levity and solace to the often-anxious college admission experience. While we cannot admit everyone, I get to offer admission to thousands of students. I get to do this. What a privilege! What an honor! What an opportunity!
You GET to Do This
What do you have to do today? What must you do this week or month? What do you need to do this year?How does your mentality, perspective, attitude, and motivation change when you consider what you get to do today?
If you are reading this, you are one of the incredibly fortunate people who gets to apply to college. You get to go to school— probably one that offers a lot of really good classes, alongside peers who want to excel, and taught by teachers who hope to see you learn, grow, and succeed. You get to work or practice or be with your family. Sadly, these are opportunities too few around our country and world enjoy.
This should not make you feel guilty. However, I hope it’s motivating. I hope it alters your perspective. Admittedly, I hope it results in you giving someone in your house or school a hug, a note, a text, or a sincere, “Thank you!” You get to do this.
You get to spend another year at home. You get to share a room or a car or a meal or clothes with a little sister. You get to listen to your dad’s stories or your mom’s lessons or your neighbor’s jokes a few more times over the upcoming months. What a privilege! What an honor! What an opportunity! EMBRACE IT.
Again, I’m no fortune teller, but here is what I see coming for you in the months ahead:
You will likely be denied or waitlisted by a school or three. I did. Most of my friends did. I am guessing if you talk to many friends who are in college now they did too. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, sometimes those closed doors help point you to the right place.
You probably won’t get all the scholarships or financial aid you hope to receive. I have a colleague who says, “The students who don’t get in want in. The students who got in want money. The students who got money want more money. And the students who got in and got all the money wanted it from somewhere else.” (What can I say? Some of us admission farmers are a bit cynical.)
You’ll see a few people you don’t think are as talented, capable, or deserving as you get into schools you want to attend. College admission is not fair—it’s driven by supply and demand and institutional mission. If you are a carrot and that college needs more squash that year, well…you cannot control those market conditions.
But just as I know the great essays, amazing stories, and community changing ventures are coming, you need to trust and know you will also get some great admission offers. You will to find a college where you will make lifelong friendships and create a lifelong network. How do those long-term results come about? You put a seed in the ground. You change your mentality. And you can do that today!
September 28, 2018 by Rick Clark
Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.
We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.
Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes, key messages, and mission statements. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition. Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places. Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.
Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.
But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: there is no completely unique topic. Sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure. The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well)… second verse, same as the first.
As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all!
My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.
Find Your Voice
Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average. Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.
So how do you find your unique voice? I’m going to give you a few steps, but first check out the picture below. The woman on my right either thinks I’m insane or that something disgusting is on my hand. The woman to my left could not care less and simply can’t believe I’m still talking. The guy on the end may be interested in the woman to my right and is likely mad at me for making her mad at life. So continue to read knowing that if you disagree or think these tips are weak, you’ll not be the first– and certainly won’t be the last.
Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.
Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness? Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?
Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?
Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.
Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!