How Tiger Moms affect The College Application Process
and What Should be Done about It

During the last application season, I arrived to work each Wednesday morning slightly more spirited than on other days because Wednesdays were when I met with Tracy, my favorite student. Eager to get to college, she treated the application process like one more light to turn on as she moved towards a brighter future. She often arrived early and sat quietly in the waiting area while working on her essay outline. Upon seeing me, she smiled, hopped to her feet, and followed me to my office where we’d tackle the week’s objectives. When she left, I was satisfied knowing that wherever Tracy chose to continue her education, she would thrive.

However, in our seventh week, the waiting room was empty. With a concerned expression, my assistant informed me that Tracy was here with her mother waiting in my office. We had finalized Tracy’s college list the week before, and it was normal for parents to have questions about what strange place and program their child would attend for the next four years. Having spent several seasons assuaging the common fears parents have while preparing for their child to leave the nest, I assumed that Tracy’s mother Rose wanted to know more about a particular program, or perhaps she wanted an in-person progress report. Either way, I was wholly unprepared for what happened next.
I stepped into my office to find Tracy sitting on the couch opposite my desk, shoulders caved, her customary smile replaced by a glum expression. Next to her sat Rose. They shared similar features, and those features were amplified that morning because Rose wasn’t smiling either. She handed me a piece of paper and told me she had revised Tracy’s college list, which had required extensive research to match Tracy’s needs as an undergraduate with the colleges that would most suit them.
I read the list carefully, and my heart sank. Every single school was located in the Northeastern United States. Seven of the schools were in the Ivy League. This would have been fine, but these schools were Rose’s schools, not Tracy’s. In our first meeting, Tracy told me she didn’t want to be in cold weather. She was adamant about this point. That alone disqualifies the Ivies but there are still a myriad of options for a high performing student like Tracy, most of which she would be accepted to with ease. I spent the next hour, originally earmarked for reviewing Tracy’s essay, attempting to explain to Rose my principles for choosing the colleges. At the end of the meeting, no one smiled. Not even Tracy.
In 2011, a Yale Law Professor named Amy Chua published “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. It was a memoir of sorts, on how she had decided to raise her daughters in a traditional Chinese, highly disciplined manner, and a watershed moment in parenting, because Mrs. Chua backed her methods with tangible results and statistics. She wrote, “In one study, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that ‘stressing academic success is not good for children’ or that ‘parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.’” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting…” She went on to write how a child’s self-esteem is secondary to their achievement, and then proudly relayed the story of how she berated one of her daughters into playing a piano piece perfectly by calling her lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic. What complex, moving piano concerto was this, you ask? Was it Tchaikovsky’s No.1? Rachmaninoff’s No. 2? Neither–it was that groundbreaking etude “The Little White Donkey.”
Harvard university, college admissions
Both of Chua’s daughters went on to major Ivy League schools and flourished, so I cannot conclude that hard-nosed discipline focused on a child’s academic success does not work. What I can say, with over ten years of experience shepherding students through the college application process, is that as soon as they start applying to college, Tiger Moms need to get back in their cage.
Many parents believe they can will their children into Harvard or the like. You can’t, and you won’t. Creating a successful college application is a wholly unique experience that requires academic skill, introspection, a willingness to think creatively and authenticity. It is not a question of working harder or studying more. Even if your child can get into Harvard, it might not be the best place for them. It certainly wasn’t for Tracy. Nor was Yale, nor Cornell. Cornell is in Ithaca, New York. In Ithaca the wind does not blow, it bites. I spent the next three weeks explaining to Rose the dangers of learning at a school you don’t want to attend. Tracy might not enjoy college or, worse yet, she could lose her enthusiasm for engineering and education altogether.
Ultimately, the tiger mom philosophy isn’t based on power or reclaiming youth, it stems from parents knowing what their children don’t: that the world they are going to graduate into can be cruel and unforgiving, and that to thrive in such a world, one must be smarter and more disciplined than their competitors. Yet, that same world is also a place where finding one’s own identity is just as critical as finding new species, and the right college can help foster both. If tiger moms don’t loosen their claws, they risk turning their children into helpless prey
In realizing this, Rose let Tracy apply to the schools on her original list, and Tracy returned to her ambitious, enthusiastic self. She chose Tulane to study bioengineering, and today, loves the program, and New Orleans weather. I urge parents to trust their parenting and that although these students are young adults, they are ready to decide their own futures—because it is their future, not ours. The college application season is a good time to set the cubs free to be tigers themselves.

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