Lately it feels like the Interwebs are loaded with stories about “perfect” kids—4.3+ GPAs, 1400+ SATs—not getting into their first choice schools. Kids are being told that getting into a “good college” is the “best path” to a “good life” so they work hard, hit all the marks they’re supposed to, and then get shut down in the college admissions process. (Scare quotes are deliberate there.) Going into a four-day trip chaperoning the high school choir to and from a competition over the weekend, I fully expected to meet a group of stressed-out, disappointed, anxious, fraught, [insert negative emotion] kids given that ¼ of them have the ball of their metaphorical foot pressing down on the metaphorical spearhead of transition-to-adulthood angst, and the rest are their friends.

Here’s who I spent time with instead:

  • A student who, having been admitted to several more-prestigious schools, will be attending a flagship out-of-state public school because she decided she wanted to keep her options open to choose a major and career path, and whose major regret is having spent too much time applying to schools she realizes she never would have chosen.
  • A good student with great grades who’s excited to spend next year at the local community college because he really doesn’t know what’s next for him.
  • A student who’s moving across country for an entry-level job in the music industry while she figures out what’s right for her.
  • A good student who didn’t get into her reach schools and is excited to be attending a school she chose strictly for financial reasons—and she got accepted into the honors college there.

And many more with similar stories. The common thread was that all of them were excited about their next step, whether or not it was their first choice. Those who had not been accepted to their first choice had largely gotten over it.

Where was the angst? The dismay? The disappointment? One of the other chaperones (mother of one of the above kids) summarized her family’s approach really well: “We focused on the experiences, even if that meant not having a perfect GPA. So our daughter sang in the choir every year, and was in theater, and had a part-time job, and played sports, and hung out with her friends. And did all the things I want a teenager to do in high school. And maybe we could have done this differently and she’d have been accepted to more prestigious schools, but I don’t know that she’d be better off if she had.” Personally, I think this mom is onto something: if we focus on the experiences we want our kids to have, rather than on the achievements we think will put them on the path to the future, the path they’ll end up on is much more likely to take them where they want to go. Yes, there will be twists and turns along the way, and we might not be able to post on Facebook that they’ll be at Harvard in the fall, but growing up and figuring out who you are and what you want to do is a marathon, not a sprint.

Congrats to these and all the great kids in the class of 2018, wherever their path may take them!