The problem of picking prestigious universities

I shared a Time article on the Misunderstood facebook page last week, and decided it was worth taking time to write about why I think this is so important for TCKs.

It has a bold headline: “It’s time to tell your kids it doesn’t matter where they go to college“. Author William Stixrud makes the excellent point that there are many paths to success, and that telling kids this does not mean they will slack off.

The problem with the stories we’re telling our kids is that they foster fear and competition. This false paradigm affects high-achieving kids, for whom a rigid view of the path to success creates unnecessary anxiety, and low-achieving kids, many of whom conclude at a young age that they will never be successful, and adopt a “why try at all?” attitude. Many of these young people engage in one of the most debilitating forms of self-talk, telling themselves either, “I have to, but I can’t,” or “I have to, but I hate it.”

In Misunderstood I included sections about pressure to excel and fear of failure – two related attitudes that came up in many of the interviews I conducted with TCKs worldwide. I referred to the work of psychology professor Martin Covington. He describes four common attitudes toward success and failure which students commonly exhibit: success-oriented, failure-avoidant, failure-accepting, and overstrivers. The above quote seems to describe failure-accepting and overstriver students.

The “overstriver” attitude was overrepresented in the TCKs I interviewed. Overstrivers are motivated by fear – that one failure will be the end of everything. This attitude means a string of successes becomes a weight, rather than an encouragement. The more they succeed, the more they must work to ensure they keep up this standard.

The decision of where to attend university feels overwhelming for many TCKs; they feel their whole future hangs on this decision, and they don’t want to get it wrong. But there are many paths to success – and almost all involve failures along the way. That’s how we learn!

Giving TCKs a realistic picture of an the post-high all options available to them is very beneficial – but rare. Instead, most get the sense that they must get into the most objectively prestigious college possible. Different communities (and families) may have different ideas of what is considered prestigious (certain countries, certain religious connections, etc.) but students have an inherent sense of where they ‘should’ go. A 17 year old TCK I interviewed expressed it this way:

I watched my sister drawn to big name schools as she graduated. All her friends went to Yale, Pepperdine and NYU, but she got a wonderful scholarship to a wonderful school which nobody had ever heard of in Qatar. She felt as if she was letting herself down by going to this lesser known school even though she fell in love with it. I am experiencing this now as I formulate my list of colleges to apply to. I have found myself with an elitist mindset when picking schools.

Misunderstood, page 285

This mentality drives students to look for schools which others will approve of, rather than schools that will best fit their individual needs and desires. This is an extension of a common childhood experience. Many TCKs grow up driven by the need to do what makes others happy, often at the expense of learning what they themselves truly feel and want.

Honestly, I’m not sure it’s a right/wrong sort of decision. No matter what choice they make there will be opportunities to learn and to grow as a person. And they can always change majors, courses, and even schools later on. Many do just that!

To break this cycle, it is important for parents, teachers, and other adults in TCKs’ lives, to clearly articulate that there are many good choices available to them. That they will find a way to forward later no matter what path they take now. That they will be loved no matter what they choose. That it is their character that makes us proud, not merely their accomplishments.

Or, as William Stixrud says, : “It’s time to tell your kids it doesn’t matter where they go to college“.

Students sitting in lecture theatre making notes

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