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The College Conversation: A lot to learn from making mistakes

June 04, 2011|By Lisa McLaughlin

As students enter the final weeks of the academic school year, the pressure to perform is tremendous.

Some students pace themselves for the culminating exams and projects, therefore reaping the benefits of careful planning and hard work. Others hole themselves up in their rooms, working around the clock to illustrate their mastery of curriculum.

And, then, there's that other student population. Those who are so afraid of failure that they turn to a less savory method — cheating — in order to achieve the desired outcome of an A.

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The stakes are so high in the eyes of many students (and the parents who've raised them) that they see no other choice but to cheat. Time and again these students have been told that being average won't get you into a "good" college.

So, parents rush to the aid of students when procrastination reaches its peak. A final project is assigned months before the due date, and at 10 p.m. the night before the deadline, panic sets in.

The parent pulls an all-nighter with the student to avert failure. An essay on the 200-page novel is due tomorrow and the book is barely worn, but the parent rushes out to purchase SparkNotes, or the student carefully devises a cheat sheet to, once again, avert failure.

An Advanced Placement course challenges a student's intellect, resulting in the average grade of C. The notion that it is not okay to be "average" sets in, so the parent demands a level change to ensure the student will earn a grade of A in an easier class. Again, failure is averted.

Even at some high schools, both public and private, students must earn an A in a prerequisite class in order to level up to a more advanced one. The unspoken message is that a less-than-perfect grade in the prerequisite class will ultimately result in a student's failure or less-than-stellar performance. The risk of allowing students to be average seems too high. Allowing a child to fail is seen as unconscionable.

I worked with a student this year whose academic schedule was one of the most rigorous I've seen in 16 years of college admissions counseling. But there was a glaring red flag.

Even though she had an A in her first semester of AP English, she leveled down mid-year to a regular college-prep English class. Since she planned to declare a major in the humanities, I worried about how colleges would perceive this change in curriculum. But, then, the real reason for dropping the class came out.

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