Tiger Kids With Heart: What the Ivies Want

"Our son is in 8th grade and he will go to Harvard, Stanford or Yale -- how can you help us reach our goal." That's how the dialogue begins with many Chinese parents I speak with day in and day out as a college consultant.

Note the possessive pronoun that frames the question and the narrow focus on name brand schools. My first task is to point out that my goal for students I work with is to help them to uncover their scholarly niche and aim for schools that are a good fit academically and socially. Educationally, it's self-defeating to focus solely on the name recognition of a school rather than the quality of a specific department or the "fit" with a student's needs and abilities. Plus, it's a particularly Tiger parent thing to value prestige over personal fit; I advocate finding the right fit.

It's no secret that Asian parents put pressure on their kids. Unless you've been living in a cave these past few months, you couldn't have missed the "Tiger Mom" brouhaha sparked by the publication of Amy Chua's book on child rearing. Sure, many parents are taken aback by the prohibition on play dates and sleepovers which borders on the extreme.

But rather than adding fuel to this fire, I want to extract a few points from Chua's parenting philosophy that don't seem so radical and in fact are supported by cognitive science. Ms. Chua asserts that American parents are overprotective, shielding their children from stress while Chinese parents "assume strength, not fragility" and as a result hold their children up to very high expectations. Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps and editor of Psychology Today, points out that children who have never been put to the test grow into "emotionally brittle" adults and are more likely to develop anxiety and depression. As cited in Time Magazine, she talks about children who have acquired "mastery experiences" become more optimistic and decisive and are more capable of achieving goals later in life.

The other proven point is that drilling and practice is crucial for success in any field -- look no farther than the Japanese math program Kumon, based on daily math drills or the success of Shanghai schools in the recent Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) in math and reading; both rely on repetition and drilling. Boring, perhaps, but essential. Practice isn't always as alluring as playing with one's iPad. Other studies have shown that once a task becomes automatic, say the multiplication tables, your brain literally changes so you can do multiplication without thinking about it, thereby creating space for higher order operations.

Of course rote learning is not the whole story. Though I believe in the power of drilling and all my top students put in the hours for both academics and extras like piano, cello, violin...I encourage them to be daring, creative, innovative: to take risks that are not the product of known outcomes -- to forge their own path. Sure, for top colleges you need high scores and high grades, impeccable academic credentials, but you also need to demonstrate love of learning, passion, creativity -- and for all of these tasks, it helps to already be a "master" of something. After all, how can you go above and beyond if you haven't yet hit the threshold? As Saint-Exupéry says, "If you want someone to explore, don't drum up people to build ships -- just show them the immensity of the sea." Successful exploration starts first with desire, and then acquires the tools. Starting with the tools does not produce the desire.

I've been a college consultant for over a decade and prior to that I worked in the admissions office at Dartmouth College. During that time, I've witnessed the shocking rise in applicants to the Ivies and other top colleges. The Washington Post reported recently: "Harvard, the nation's oldest college, crossed a symbolic threshold this year when it received more than 30,000 applications for about 1,600 seats in its freshman class. With 1.5 million students expected to enter four-year colleges this fall, that means roughly one in 50 applied to Harvard. Brown University passed the same milestone this year, Stanford last year."

Like many top colleges, Dartmouth's applicant pool has more than doubled over the last decade while the number of seats remains the same. Harvard and Penn are up 15 percent from last year, Harvard receiving over 35,000 applications while Penn received almost 31,000. Columbia experienced a 32 percent rise in applications thanks to accepting the Common Application this year. The Daily Pennsylvanian reports "In line with Penn's 17-percent increase, Columbia, Harvard and Princeton have seen 32-percent, 15-percent and 3.3-percent surges in overall applications, respectively. MIT reported a 7-percent increase." Yale rose 5 percent this year.

Yes, it's hard to get into the most competitive colleges -- and yes, every Tiger parent wants his/her child to get into a name brand college and yes, colleges want students with top scores and grades, so why are acceptances for Asians among the lowest of any ethnic group at these colleges? (Espenshade and Radford, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions, p. 80) The bottom line is that colleges don't want Tiger kids -- they want kids with a Tiger's heart, kids who have the numbers, but show a deep passion and love of learning, an innate sense of scholarship and an intellectual vitality that is often absent from accomplished Tiger kids. Being trapped in the piano practice room all day doesn't leave much time for free play, exploration of new areas, time for the brain to develop and pursue creative thoughts.

Colleges can't instill passion in kids -- the best applicants already arrive with this passion ingrained within them. Colleges want visionaries, not just the bean counters who put in the time and the hours without showing love of scholarship and learning. In my practice, I try to take the best aspects of being a Tiger mom with all the discipline that entails while carving space and free time for creativity, innovation, and passion in my students so they have many options for college. As a welcome byproduct, they've focused in on an academic area and developed a sense of scholarship and appreciation for learning that will stay with them forever. Tiger kids with tiger hearts.