Your child’s heart is set on a “reach” school, which means your child’s chances of getting into that school are pretty low. So what’s the right way for parents to encourage teens to aim high and work hard, while also being open to other options and resilient to rejection?

The answer, of course, depends on the kid, the parent, and myriad variables that are unique to each of us. The key is a balanced approach based on your child, says John Duffy, psychologist and the author of The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful and Resilient Teens and Tweens.

If you suggest a particular school may be tough to get into, will your child immediately cross it off his list as too much trouble? Or is he so type-A that you’ll have to convince him that plenty of people don’t get into their first-choice schools and still go on to lead happy and productive lives?

If your teen’s dreaming about going to a reach school, these talking points will help guide your conversations.

  1. Check your own feelings at the door

    Whether the school in question is the one you went to, or wish you’d gone to, or think is the best place for your child, you’ll do better to put those feelings aside lest you inadvertently convey the message that your regard for your child depends on them being accepted to a particular school.

    “One thing parents can do is take their own judgments and ego out of the equation and really focus on, ‘What’s the best thing for my child, and how do I prepare them for this possible disappointment without making it my disappointment?’ Because I see that more often than I see kids being disappointed,” says Duffy. “Kids are pretty pragmatic, it’s often the parents who have a hard time.”

  2. Reach for the (realistic) stars

    A reach school is one where the student’s grades and test scores fall below the middle 50 percent of students who are typically admitted. Schools that admit only a small percentage of applicants are considered reach schools for everybody — and this generally applies to all top-tier schools. But just because the chances of admission are low doesn’t mean your child shouldn’t try.

    “If there’s a school you’d really like to attend if you can get in, apply. They may say no, but then you’ve lost nothing. And if they say yes, you’d be delighted,” says Venkates Swaminathan, founder of LifeLaunchr, an online college coaching company and former GreatSchools employee. “It’s also important to have target schools that the student is genuinely interested in. So when the acceptance letters start rolling in, they’re happy. The key is not to focus exclusively on the reach schools.”

    Swaminathan advises students to apply to between seven and 10 universities total: two to three reach schools, three to four target schools, and two to three “safety” schools — colleges where the student’s academic profile is significantly better than the average for the incoming freshman class.

  3. Get personal — but don’t take it personally

    To get into their reach school, teens must convince admissions officials that they’re a good fit. That means thinking deeply about the institution and why your child wants to attend, and then pouring their heart and soul into the essay. It’s not easy to lay it all out there when rejection is a strong possibility. But your child’s best chance lies in doing just that. “Students who apply to reach schools do get in, and a lot depends on whether their application sets them apart in a compelling way. That means, among other things, telling a compelling story about why you want to attend this university and why you’d be a great fit there,” says Swaminathan.

    After laying it all out there, your teen may need help keeping the outcome in perspective. Be sure to help your child understand that not getting in is neither a personal rejection nor a judgment by society.

  4. Make it about the numbers

    For some top schools, thousands more students apply than the school can possibly accept — including applicants with stellar grades, great SAT scores, and every indication that they’ll go on to succeed at whatever they do.

    Duffy suggests that looking at admissions from a numbers perspective can make the whole experience feel less fraught and personal. Students can use resources like to look up the schools they’re interested in and see the average GPAs and SAT and ACT test scores of people who were accepted, and then see where their own profile falls. “It is helpful because it’s unemotional,” Duffy says.

  5. Make it a (subtle) lesson in resilience

    College applications mark the beginning of an adulthood that will likely involve many hard efforts and disappointments. Resilience is like a muscle that gets stronger with use. How you talk about reach schools, and about your own hopes and aspirations, will cue your child about how to handle the rollercoaster of life after college admissions (and really, there is one).

    In your own life, do you take on difficult challenges, or do you think, Why bother when I might fail? When you hit a setback, do you think, This is disappointing, but I know I will feel better tomorrow? Showing your kids that you have optimism, hope, drive, and follow-through is worthwhile preparation for college application season — and the rest of your child’s life.

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