Every year as the long-awaited summer break rolls in, parents and kids have very different expectations of how the ten weeks should be spent. If you have high school sophomores or juniors, you want them to study for the ACT and SAT or start composing essays for college applications. The problem is that college is on our teens’ mind, but they want to have fun rather than work.

I’ve shared with you in my previous posts that my older daughter Jane lost focus on schoolwork the second year into high school. Joe and I tried everything any parents could think of to get her back on track but with little success. Jane took her first ACT in the fall of her junior year and scored 27. Her second try yielded a worse score of 26.

“Jane, this downward trend doesn’t look good. I hope you aren’t happy with it either.” I issued a warning.

“I know … I know … Next time it’ll be much better.”

Jane registered to take the test again in June before her senior year. She was still goofing around and spending most the precious time texting her friends or watching TV two weeks before the crucial exams. My patience was running thin.

Joe and I gave Jane one last lecture on how her efforts at present would link to her future success. Jane started to say ‘no’ to her friends when they called and asked her out. She spent the last ten days at home studying although she looked absolutely miserable. When we asked her how she had done after the test, she offered the typical nonchalant answer, “I don’t know.”

Two weeks later, Jane called me at work. She sounded like she was crying and her words were incoherent. My heart sank. I thought she had been hurt in a traffic accident.

“No, no, Mom. I am fine. I got a thirty-three on my ACT test. Thirty-three!”

My heart was now racing for entirely different reasons. “Wow! All that hard work paid off, did it? I knew you could do it. I am very very happy for you!”

“Me too, Mom! Me too!” She started giggling.

So with a GPA of 3.86, Jane was directly admitted to the Kelley School of Business of IU with scholarship (the threshold for scholarship is 3.8 GPA and ACT over 30). Joe and I were much relieved.

I thought motivating Michelle would be much easier because she had bigger dreams and better grades. We gave her the same lecture and advised her to spend 45 minutes a day during the summer break to prepare for ACT. Joe predicted that if Michelle would consistently tackle the test prep workbooks and checked the answers for the ones she got wrong, there would be no reason why she couldn’t get a score better than thirty-three. Michelle totally agreed.

Kids today live in a world full of distractions and temptations, which tends to push study to the back burner, especially during the fun time of summer. Michelle got annoyed at me for constantly reminding her of studying for ACT. She finally declared that she knew what she had to do and I ought to just back off. We had our last talk with me promising to trust her judgment and stop breathing down her neck.

Michelle scored 30 on her first try, not bad. Her goal was 33 or higher. She put in some effort before each subsequent test and made improvement every time. But her third and fourth attempts yielded the same result – 32. She decided that was the best she could do.

With a GPA of 4.4, we all believed Michelle had a very good chance of being admitted to University of Michigan. Sadly she didn’t make it.

Michelle’s own take on the outcome was 1) If she had known what top colleges were looking for, she’d have tried to stand out in some way instead of being well-rounded; 2) If she had known that she was going to IU, she’d have worked considerably less hard in high school.

Her second reflection didn’t sound right to my Asian ears. But then I thought to myself, “Isn’t it human nature to constantly weight investments and rewards?” But still I gave her my motherly advice.

“Michelle, it always pays to work hard because nobody has the crystal ball to know about the future. My own experience tells me that nothing I’ve learned or worked for is ever wasted. You still have opportunities to enter one of the top universities for the MBA program if that’s what you choose to do in four years.”

Most adolescents know what threshold they want to hit when it comes to crucial college qualification exams. As parents we should help them set that goal and develop solid plans to achieve it. However just because you and your teen talked about it and had an action plan, don’t expect them to consistently follow it through. Consider hiring a college student tutor whom your child can relate and be accountable to. Instead of nagging and lecturing when your son or daughter isn’t doing what they are supposed to do, praise them generously when they are putting in any effort. They don’t have to ‘ruin’ their whole summer to study for those ‘useless’ tests, focused effort for a relatively short period of time could lead to rewarding results. Luckily they get to keep on trying until the target is reached. In China, kids only get one shot at college qualification exams.

I believe some parents overrate the differences between the Ivy-League and the other colleges and therefore push their high schoolers with too much zeal and determination. Some teens comply and fulfill their parents’ dreams, while others rebel openly or simply give up. Getting through college requires a whole new level of effort and focus and those who were forced into it are more likely to drop out, change majors frequently or fall into depression.

High school is a challenging and stressful time for our teens with competing priorities and expectations. They also have to start thinking about their future and what they want to get out of life. Our children want to make us proud and yet are fearful of our disappointment. It is critical that parents maintain open and honest communication with their teenagers. We should focus on the process rather than the end results. Not all teens get their acts together by the end of high school years. Some will bloom later. As parents, we want to lay a solid foundation for their continuous future success.