A little over one year ago, my daughter was born, pink, wrinkled, and screaming her way into this world. Right now, she’s barely even walking and can only say one word (not mama or dada, unfortunately, but Chester, the family dog’s name). And, yet, I’ve already started filling out her college applications and preparing her for college. What do I mean? Well, I believe the skills that will help her get into and excel at the top colleges are the very same skills that will also help her to be outstanding in her work life and to develop deep, loving relationships in her personal life.
So, if you had images of me planting my daughter in front of an endless progression of academic books and tutoring sessions, then you’ve misunderstood me. I am preparing my daughter for college now by nurturing and developing her soft skills, such as empathy, leadership, and conflict resolution, which, by the way, are best taught from an early age. I am filling out her college applications now by making sure she has meaningful life experiences and genuine passions that will make great fodder for her application essays. All these efforts take time and parents need to begin the process well before high school. This type of preparation for college (and, indeed, life in general) needs to start in middle school, at the latest.
Nurturing soft skills, having meaningful life experiences, and discovering genuine passions are especially important for Chinese applicant to top US or UK schools. Why? Well, let’s just say that nearly all Chinese applicants approach these schools with almost perfect school grades and standardized test scores. Taking and excelling in exams can be considered a national sport in China. That, and the unfortunate, if not totally unjustified, Chinese reputation for cheating in exams and even essay writing have made many admissions officers wary of the Chinese applicant. How do you get past that? Again, I think the ‘secret’ is in building up your child’s soft skills and making them authentic, charming, and interesting individuals who interview well, develop deep relationships with adults (for recommendation letters), and have genuine long-held passions that can be demonstrated with achievements and experiences going back to at least middle school.
Without further ado, here are two fun ways I believe Chinese parents can start preparing their middle schooler for top US colleges (and ‘real’ life beyond that as well!):
1. Throw them out of the house! Well, maybe not literally. When Sir Richard Branson, the phenomenally successful owner of Virgin Atlantic, was four years old, he was extremely shy and had difficulty interacting with adults. His mother was not happy about it and felt she had to do something. So, one day, as they were driving home from a friend’s house, she kicked him out of the car several miles away from their house and told him to make his own way home. She knew he’d be forced to ask adults for directions. Thankfully, he arrived home safely and that experience marked the beginning of a more adventurous and outgoing attitude to life.
Now, I’m not advocating doing something this drastic, but I do encourage parents to regularly take their children to a safe place (e.g., a bookstore or library) and ask them to approach strangers and ask them a question and start a conversation. You could start off with something very simple, like asking for the time or directions to the nearest subway stop. For safety reasons, I think parents or an adult guardian should be present, but they should stay off to the sidelines and not comment or give advice on the exchange until after it’s over. The goal is for the child to start to feel comfortable approaching and talking to all sorts of people. Teach them to look people in the eye, to speak clearly, be friendly and polite, and to use confident body language.
I cannot tell you how important these communication skills will be when it comes time to interview for college and when your child finally arrives on campus for the first day of college. He or she will probably object at first, but, trust me, it will get easier each time they do it and they’ll eventually thank you for giving them so many opportunities to practice this vital life skill in a low-risk, safe environment. I see too many Chinese tweens and teenagers that are so painfully awkward when you meet with them in person; they can’t carry on a conversation if their lives depended on it and they can’t bear looking you in the eye. It comes off as disrespectful and rude. And, yet, these same children as incredibly smart, witty, and polite in their texts and emails. Don’t let that happen to your kid! Throw them out into the world!
2. Let them plan your next vacation. I know, I know. Doesn’t sound very practical does it? You probably have visions of spending a week sitting around in pajamas and seeing nothing but the inside of a very expensive, but boring hotel room. So, let me expand on my suggestion with some guidelines. Tell your child that he or she can plan the next vacation, but they must a) work within a budget that you specify, b) consider not only their own interests, but also those of parents and siblings, and c) cannot simply sign you all up for a guided tour group.
What does this exercise accomplish? Organizing a vacation while staying on budget will teach them that both time and money are limited, so goals and plans must be made well ahead of time. Being able to set goals and devise plans to achieve those goals is a skill that children need to start developing early on. There is a tendency among Chinese parents to ‘over plan’ their children’s lives; this means they have few opportunities to take risks and discover for themselves what it takes to decide on a goal, make a plan, and then go for it. Without taking those risks and experiencing some failures along the way (and, hopefully, realizing that they can recover from such failures), children will either not plan anything or set very safe and easily achievable goals that don’t push them to their full potentials.
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This post first appeared on July 8, 2013 on Prep Beijing and written by Alicia Lui.
Alicia Lui is a co-founder at Prep Beijing!, a coaching company focusing on core soft skills such as effective communication, social and emotional skills, etiquette, critical thinking and leadership skills. Prior to founding Prep Beijing! She has worked in management consulting and in banking. She holds and MBA from INSEAD and Bachelor’s from University of Chicago
Photo: A&M Commerce (flickr)