I've been helping kids get into top colleges for nearly 15 years, and parents always seem to ask me the wrong questions
- Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is a college admissions expert who's helped hundreds of students get into top schools such as Harvard and Princeton, and a former admissions interviewer for Cornell, his alma mater.
- In nearly 15 years of college admissions consulting, he finds parents want to ask him technical questions about increasing their kids' odds and applying strategically.
- But just as important, he's found, is the language parents use with their kids to talk about college applications.
- To explain, he shares his own experience applying to a college on the other side of the US as a teenager, breaking the mold for his high school and his family.
In my almost 15 years helping students get into America's top colleges, I've received a lot of questions from students and parents about this or that issue, as well as many requests to produce articles or presentations on various topics.
Nearly 100% of the questions I continue to receive are tactical, such as:
- How can we build connections with top colleges?
- What major should my daughter apply for to increase her admissions odds?
- Should my son apply early decision (ED) to his dream school even though it's a reach, or should we use ED for a school where he's more competitive?
What parents, students, and I discuss far less often - but is perhaps as important - is developing the right college admissions mindset.
Having the right mindset about your child's college admissions process can increase their confidence and admissions odds, whereas the wrong mindset can sabotage their chances.
To address this issue, I want to share lessons I've learned from my parents that either helped or hurt my college admissions mindset - and admissions odds - many years ago.
Lesson 1: Anyone has a chance
At various points in my life, I've expressed to my dad an intention to achieve something or another, such as receiving a prestigious fellowship.
His response (in Armenian) has often been: "Why not? The ones who have done it are human, too."The lesson he wanted to instill in me was: What you want to achieve is indeed achievable. It doesn't require a supernatural ability. If others have done it, so can you.
I'm sharing this lesson to encourage you to tell your child that their dreams are achievable, rather than getting so caught up in Harvard's admission rate or comparing your child's accomplishments to another student from their school or elsewhere who got into MIT.
After all, the students who get into elite schools are human, just like your child.
By helping your child believe in their admissions odds, they'll be much more likely to put forth their best effort.
Lesson 2: Doubting your kids doesn't help
The tiny high school I attended was founded in 1964. To my knowledge, I am the only student in its 54-year history to ever graduate from an Ivy League university.
In my childhood community, many consider the ideal to be graduating from a prestigious LA university, such as UCLA or USC, because you can receive a great education while being close to home.
When I decided to apply to Ivy League schools over a decade ago, my dad surprisingly asked, "Do you think you can get in? Those schools aren't for folks like us" (middle-class immigrants).What he was really saying was, "I don't think you can get into an Ivy League school." This message sharply contrasted with previous statements meant to instill confidence.
Fast forward to a few months later when I was getting ready to send my deposit to Cornell. My dad asked, "Are you sure you'll be able to make it there? Those kids are really smart."
Again, my dad wasn't actually asking me a question. He was expressing doubts about my odds of success.
Unfortunately, what he communicated to me resulted in self-doubt. Would I succeed at Cornell? Are there other areas of my life where I'm being irrationally optimistic?
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending (I graduated from Cornell with a 3.9 GPA as a premed student) and I learned a critical lesson: What fills our minds dictates how we feel and the effort we put in.
You have a choice here: Will you fill your child's mind with positivity or negativity?
Parents sometimes intentionally discourage their students from pursuing a certain goal (e.g., "We don't want you to apply to that school because it's too far away and we believe that you won't be able to take care of yourself.").
Other times, they do so unintentionally, thinking they're guiding their child the right way. (e.g., "As a [White/Korean American/Indian American/etc.] applicant, your odds of getting into that school are slim, especially as a STEM major." or "The competition is crazy these days. I just don't know if she's actually competitive or if we're being unrealistic.")I want to assure you that it's completely normal to doubt your child's admissions odds at times, but that it can be incredibly harmful to plant those seeds of doubt in your child's mind. Really, nothing good comes from it.
Instead, validate the doubts your child surely has themselves (e.g., "You're probably doubting your chances...") and communicate your belief in them (e.g., "...but I know you can do it. You've worked so hard to get to this point.")
Lesson 3: Consider the long term
A few years after graduating from Cornell, my parents and I started reminiscing over dinner about the time I moved to the East Coast for school and how my decision served as the foundation for developing a great network of high-achieving friends and fulfilling career.
My mom and dad stated, almost in unison, that I had "made the right decision" in leaving.
My parents had observed, for instance, how nearly every time I wore my college t-shirt in public-whether in New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles - I would get stopped by a proud fellow alum to chat about our days in school. These conversations often led to contact exchanges, some of which led to important career opportunities.
While I had always known that attending Cornell was the right personal, financial, and professional decision for me, it was eye-opening for others to comment on how they had noticed the positive impacts of my decision as well.
When thinking about your child's college admissions process, therefore, consider the long term.
I often hear parents comparing the most prestigious schools their child can get into with those that are "the right fit," as though those two things are mutually exclusive. To me, this comparison is often reflective of anxiety about their child not getting into their true dream school.In addition, I've observed numerous times how some parents will enroll their children in high-cost private high schools and summer programs and expect to pay even more for their child's college tuition, but will shy away from investing in application support for their child to get into the best possible school.
The third example I routinely see is parents discouraging their child from applying to certain dream schools because their odds of getting in are fairly low. Instead, they encourage their child to apply mostly to schools where they're more likely than not to get in. Unfortunately, the student ends up wondering, "What if I had applied? Was it worth saving the relatively small application fee?"
Please encourage your child not only to think positively, but also to dream big and to fully support them in achieving those dreams. The upside is too good not to try.
Growing up with Tourette Syndrome in a middle-class family, Dr. Shemmassian was often mocked by peers and teachers and discouraged from applying to elite colleges. Therefore, he taught himself everything he needed to know to graduate debt-free with his B.S. in Human Development from Cornell and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.
Dr. Shemmassian has been featured on The Washington Post, US News, and NBC, as well as been invited to speak at Stanford, Yale, and UCLA. He presents on topics including standing out on college applications, writing memorable college essays, and navigating higher education with a disability.