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This Fall, I Want My Teen to Focus on Living, Not the College Rat Race

My late father got a scholarship to Princeton University and earned a master’s degree in American literature from Columbia University. He was under/unemployed his entire life. That’s what I tell all the high-strung, type-A moms who caution that my daughter will never get into a decent college because she’s only taking one advanced placement course this upcoming academic year at her elite New York City public high school. Conventional bizdom says families of 11th graders must fork over oodles of cash to the College Board for AP and SAT exams to stand out come college admissions time. But after an agonizing year and a half of mostly remote learning (a dismal total of only 12 hours of synchronous instruction a week), I’m not looking for my teen to compete; I just want her to successfully complete a year of full-time, in-person high school.

In the scheme of pandemic horror stories, my daughter’s experience wasn’t all that terrible. Mom and dad are still alive and healthy and, after a period of uncertainty, gainfully employed. She passed her classes with decent grades, and she didn’t end up in the ER thanks to her dedicated therapist. She is incredibly privileged and fully vaccinated. And yet, she’s fragile and anxious about almost everything, especially school. Come September, she’ll officially be an upperclassman, but she won’t feel like one. Her freshman year was cut short two-thirds of the way through, and she’s set foot in the building less than a dozen times since March 13, 2020. Recently, a lot of the grown-ups in her life have been asking if she’s excited to begin her college search and she doesn’t know how to respond. Why should she be excited to start her next chapter when she’s barely cracked the book of high school?

That’s why, when filling out her course preference form, I told her to pick classes that intrigued her. Precalculus and Physics did not make the cut. Instead, she asked for Web Development (a much better math option since she wants to go into commercial art) and the scarily timely Environmental Science and the Impact on Society. The head of math and science warned me that selective colleges might scoff at those choices. Perhaps. But I need my Zoomed-out, disengaged, academically shaky teen to learn to love learning again. If that doesn’t happen, college — selective or otherwise — won’t be in the cards at all.

During the pandemic, I watched my daughter go from an all-A student to someone who loathed school. Even subjects she used to love, like math and art, filled her with dread. Being on a screen all the time for everything, she couldn’t focus, and she struggled to manage her time and finish her assignments. The worst part? She feels like she retained nothing. The other day when I asked her what she learned over the past year, she cynically replied, “How to disappoint you.”

I know some parents believe that once our kids are back in school in person, they will immediately begin to thrive. To my mind, that is misguided magical thinking. I anticipate lots of ups and downs and fits and starts due to the pandemic and panic attacks. Junior year of high school is stressful in the best of times. For students who missed out on their entire sophomore and part of freshman years, it’s going to be a nerve-racking test — with much higher stakes than the SAT.

Junior year of high school is stressful in the best of times. For students who missed out on their entire sophomore and part of freshman years, it’s going to be a nerve-racking test — with much higher stakes than the SAT.

I don’t want the pressure to break my kid. That’s why I’m encouraging her to pursue her passions, both in and after school. I realize the classes she’s taking may not be the most competitive, but I don’t care. I want her to enjoy them and, ideally, excel, too. I don’t want her saddled with four hours of nightly homework because then there would be no time for her K-pop dance group, youth theater troupe, or trapeze. I want her to focus on making friends, not making the grade.

Perhaps my parenting strategy means she won’t get into the “best” colleges. Maybe she won’t go to college right away — or at all. After a world-upending pandemic, I’ve learned to adjust many of my expectations. The only ones I still cling to are wanting my daughter to be happy, independent and fulfilled. You don’t need a brand-name college for any of that.

WATCH: Teens Talk About Mental Health Struggles During the Pandemic

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