Lisa Rivero M.A.

Creative Synthesis

High School Years: College Prep or Life Prep?

Adolescence is about so much more than preparation for college.

Posted Apr 11, 2012

“How difficult it must be for American adolescents to learn how to become mature adults, given how little time they spend alone with their parents.” ~ Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure

Teen Girl
We observe and celebrate coming of age in many ways, including religious ceremonies, such as confirmation or bar and bat mitzvahs, and honors and responsibilities, such as becoming an Eagle Scout or getting a driver’s license. But the coming of age ceremony we share most widely as a society is high school graduation, and graduation from high school is inextricably tied to a child’s academic career and, for many students, preparation for college.

For these teens, the rest of their existence, feelings, dreams, goals, and fears—including getting to know oneself and one’s talents, thinking about friendships and other relationships, and gaining skills necessary to adapt to life’s continual change—often take a back seat to college prep timetables and priorities, beginning as early as middle school.

Michael Winerip, who interviews and recommends potential Harvard applicants, wrote in the New York Times, “I see these kids—and watch my own applying to college—and as evolved as they are, I wouldn’t change places with them for anything. They’re under such pressure.”

Now more than ever, the years of high school and even middle school are often thought of primarily as years of college prep. Certainly by junior year, if not before, many college-bound students take on a full schedule of AP classes, standardized testing (including SAT or ACT preparatory classes and tutoring), campus visits and interviews, volunteer hours so as to fill out a high school résumé, participation in extracurricular activities and sports so as to be well-rounded, and studying to maintain a near-perfect GPA.

Of course, planning for one’s future is a good thing, as is thinking about what courses to take and what is required in order to reach one’s goals. But should college prep really be a stress-inducing, full-time vocation? The young people I know and teach, especially very bright or talented teenagers who feel pressured to fulfill their potential sooner rather than later, often say that they have little time for reflection, for imagination and personal discovery, for leisure reading or sleeping in or even long family vacations—unless they are used to visit potential schools—all of which cut into their college prep career.

What can be lost in this busy schedule is the fact that adolescence is about so much more than preparation for college. It’s about preparation for the rest of life, including moral, personality, and social-emotional development. Going to the “right” college or even any college right after high school is no sure sign of success. Students who defer college for a year or more to work, travel, or just spend more time with their family do not fall behind in life’s big picture. In fact, they may be doing themselves a favor and avoiding college burnout by taking a break from full-time academics.

Felice Kaufman’s longitudinal study of 300 Presidential Scholars, in which she found that when “the time came to leave the formal education system, these subjects were at a loss” in terms of finding an identity and being happy with who they were, continues to have relevance today. Consider these observations from two of her subjects a decade after their high school graduation:

“[I am] finally making time to catch up with human relationships, having not had time to get properly socialized.”


“Much of my difficulty in the job-career area comes from (1) school, school, school—when I was little, what I wanted to be when I grew up was to go to college, and (2) my great diversity of interests. It’s a hard thing for those of us who were crammed with so many expectations to even know where we stand after ten years. Now, it’s time to try new ways.”

The teenage years can be emotionally challenging for both teens and their parents. Unsure of how to respond to a seemingly new set of behaviors each day, parents can be tempted to focus on what seems easiest to worry about and control: school and grades. If our adolescents are getting good grades and good reports from teachers, then they must be doing fine, or so we tell ourselves. Or we buy into the “myth of maturity” as described so well by Terri Apter and tell ourselves that by adolescence, we have done all we can, and now it is time for them to struggle on their own and find the answers by themselves.

Alan and Gail Edmunds, authors of “Sensitivity: A Double-Edged Sword for the Pre-Adolescent and Adolescent Gifted Child,” offer a different perspective on the teenage years:

“Given the emotional challenges of the adolescent period…the focus for the education of the pre-adolescent and adolescent gifted child should be on recognizing and supporting the child’s heightened sensitivity, or emotionality, rather than merely focusing on curricula learned or talents exhibited. Helping gifted children to face the pressures of conforming to societal expectations, including conforming to sex-role stereotypes, may be the ultimate education for the sensitive child.”

Recognizing. Supporting. Helping. We can’t use grades or test scores to know how well we are recognizing our children’s changing needs, supporting their sensitivity, or helping them to avoid societal pressure, but that doesn’t mean that our time spent with them isn't valuable, even—and maybe especially—when it is hard and when we don’t have the answers. Once children get to college, as much as we might talk to them on cell phones or video conferencing and spend money for weekend car or plane trips home, they are often far too busy or far away for us to make up for the valuable time we have during their high school years.

It takes courage to put college prep into a broader perspective during our children’s adolescence, especially when we get the message from friends and family that admission to specific schools is the only validation of a bright child's potential. However, if your gifted teenager doesn’t take or pass AP calculus, she can always begin with Calculus I in college. If he doesn’t apply to all 12 colleges on his original list or go to a $50,000-per-year dream school, he can still find one that is a good fit. There are many good teachers, classes, and schools out there to meet our children’s intellectual needs. But our teenagers have only one set of parents capable of knowing and supporting them as only parents can, and for that there is no remedial class.

Adapted from Rivero, L. (2010) A parent's guide to gifted teens: Living with intense and creative adolescents. Great Potential Press; 2010.


Apter, T. (2002).The myth of maturity: What teenagers need from parents to become adults. New York: Norton.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Rathunde, K., & Whalen, S. (1993). Talented teenagers: The roots of success and failure. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Edmunds, A. L., & Edmunds, G. (2005). Sensitivity: A double-edged sword for the pre-adolescent and adolescent gifted child. Roeper Review, 27(2), 69-77.

Kaufman, F. (1981). The 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars: A follow-up

Kaufman, F. (1992). What educators can learn from gifted

Winerip, M. (2007, April 29). Young, gifted, and not getting into Harvard. New York Times.

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