College preparedness 101: Does your child have the tools to earn his degree?

The younger of our two sons starts his senior year of high school next week. On the way to turn in his forms and fees, he sings along to his playlist of favorite songs by — believe it or not — Billy Joel, Elton John, the Bee Gees, and Christopher Cross. Proof positive that “everything old is new again.” Anyway, I glance over at his six-foot-one-inch frame folded into the driver’s seat, arms fully extended to prevent his knees from impeding the steering wheel, and recall the pipsqueak who consistently, for years, measured below the 50th percentile for height and weight.

As we make our way to the building, this young man, who didn’t choose to walk until he was 14 months old, towers above me, taking one long, smooth stride for every two of mine. While waiting in line, I relish listening to him chatting amiably with fellow students. Memories of a little fellow nervously reporting he had to pull a ticket for talking in class his first day of school come flooding back. After nearly three weeks of going over the proper time and place for talking and daily reminders, he completed his first ticket-free day. He was so proud of choosing to use greater self control. He liked the good feeling that came from not having to pull a ticket.

How minor the infractions were then. How trivial the consequences. How simple the solutions. But, how powerful the lessons.

With age, the choices become more numerous, challenging, and critical. The infractions have more serious, sometimes devastating consequences. The solutions become more complicated. And the implications can be life-altering, even life-threatening.

With high school graduation just beyond the horizon, it is easy to become embroiled in college fever — scheduling the right combination of college prep and Advanced Placement courses, getting the right test scores, visiting the right colleges, compiling the right multi-tiered list of schools, navigating the quagmire of scholarships and financial aid to achieve the right payment plan, and anxiously awaiting admission letters from the right college.

Considering all of the energy and expense associated with getting into college, it is surprising that 30 percent of freshmen drop out after their first year. Oftentimes, this has less to do with their ability to do the work and more to do with their inability to manage the changing demands. Only 59 percent of students who start college finish with a degree. Perhaps the focus on preparing for college has obscured the vital importance of preparing for life.

After a 10-year hiatus, we are currently engaged in the college application and admission process. With over 20 years of combined experience in higher education at four different institutions, Jerry and I are confident that the quality of education our son receives will depend more on what he does than where he goes. His future will be determined as much by his choices as his grades. We’re less concerned with the kind of profession he pursues than the kind of person he becomes. Over the next 12 months, while he’s preparing for college, it’s our job to make sure we’ve prepared him for life.

We’ll be paying close attention to whether or not he demonstrates the ability to:

• Juggle schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and college applications

• Prioritize commitments

• Stay organized and meet deadlines

• Exercise sound judgment regarding driving, friends, and social activities

• Make healthy choices for alleviating stress

• Resist peer pressure

• Seek and create opportunities to pursue his goals

• Manage his resources such as time, money, energy

• Establish and maintain mutually satisfying relationships

• Express feelings honestly and appropriately

• Communicate effectively and respectfully regardless of the circumstances

• Be accountable and accept responsibility for his actions

• Find pleasure in working hard and a job well done

• Recognize there is honor in all work

• Seek fun in healthy, productive activities

• Become more self-sufficient with regards to laundry, meal preparation, car maintenance, personal shopping

• Abide by house rules and maturely negotiate for modifications

• Stay calm in the face of adversity

• Exhibit a cooperative spirit

• Meet both success and failure with grace and humility

• Treat others the way he would like to be treated, with kindness, generosity, respect

• Love genuinely, deeply, and unselfishly

This may seem like a long list of prerequisites for being prepared for life, but we’ve been working on it for 17 years. We have one more year to be with our son on a daily basis, providing feedback, guidance, encouragement, and support. One more year to establish realistic expectations and reasonable consequences. Clearly we don’t expect him to fully master all the items on this list. Many are goals we continue to work toward ourselves. But his progress will be just as important in determining which college he attends, as where he gets accepted.

We may only have one more year to prepare our son, but we have the rest of our lives to love him. While we don’t want him to need us, we sure need him to want us in his life. We’ll know we’ve prepared him well if he chooses to be good, to do good, and to be happy. We’ll know we’ve parented him for life!

Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, please e-mail