The recent college cheating scandal only underscores the message we are sending our kids: If you don't get into a top school, you failed.

Watching the college admissions cheating scandal unfold in the last few weeks has been like watching a docudrama. It’s fascinating. It’s disturbing. It involved celebrities (Aunt Becky, no!!) we know and love. In short, who could look away?

As a quick refresher, here’s what happened: An indictment released earlier this month alleges that dozens of uber-rich parents paid an admissions consultant to use illegal means to get their underperforming kids into top-tier universities. The scandal includes allegations of million-dollar bribes, falsifying learning disabilities to cheat on the SAT and forging athletic portfolios.

Inevitably, the outrage over this particular “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal will die down, charges will be filed and the nation will move on to the next salacious news item. But there will still be high school students across America working themselves to death trying to get into these top-tier schools because they are receiving this message loud and clear: The college you go to determines your happiness and success forever (cue ominous background music).

The difference is, most of these students who are clamoring to get into the school of their dreams will not have the connections and deep pockets of the kids involved in the cheating scandal. Basically, they will work themselves nearly to death chasing after a dream that society has told them they have to achieve. Or else.

The cheating scandal only reinforces just how cutthroat and competitive it has become to get into a top college. So maybe while we’re casting judgment on these celebrity parents and decrying the unfairness/illegality of what they did, we should also all be taking a closer look at the totally legal ways we have careened off course in an effort to help our kids find meaningful, happy lives.

We all want our children to be the best they can possibly be. And sometimes, let’s admit it, we want them to be the best, period (or at least better than the other kids).

So, we push. We encourage them to take the hardest classes they can, as soon as they can. We start a domino effect as early as sixth grade. You have to take this hard class so you can take that hard class next year, and if you don’t start right now then you won’t take the 10 Advanced Placement classes you need to even be considered for your dream school. So yes, you’re only 12, but you’re already behind!

And all of it is leading to that one, ultimate, life-defining question that haunts seniors: Did you get in?

And what if the answer is no? What if they don’t get in? What then? According to the message we’ve been pushing at our children, then they fail. They failed to achieve the one thing that was guaranteed to give them a happy, successful life.

Yikes. That's bleak. And totally untrue. But are we inadvertently pushing our kids straight toward feeling like failures before life has even really started?

I have no idea when this defeatist message started taking hold. Most likely, it’s been developing slowly over decades and reinforced by a co-mingling of elitism, admissions myths and helicopter parent fervor. And I, for one, am exhausted by it. I can only imagine how our children feel.

So in the wake of this cheating scandal, perhaps it’s time to take a minute and re-evaluate why we place so much emphasis on getting into that one, amazing school. Here’s what I’d want my children to know about college:

1. College doesn’t define you — or make you happy. You will be the same you at Harvard or the state school down the road, or at no school at all. You will not be an automatic success if you get in, nor an automatic failure if you don’t. You will still be you, with all your talents and skills and dreams for the future. No admissions letter can change that.

2. Getting into a top-tier school is an amazing accomplishment, but it’s not the only way. Students who end up going to their “safety school” have just as much a shot at success as their friend who got into their “reach.” If you’re a good student who is willing to work hard, you’ll be a good student at any school. For others, a traditional school setting may not be the right path at all. There are many avenues to success in life — the important thing is to find the one that works for you and leads to your dreams.

3. College is just the beginning. What school you get into seems like the end-all, be-all when you’re a junior and senior in high school. You’ve worked hard for your chance, and that’s something to be proud of. But college isn’t the end goal; it’s just the start of a journey of finding yourself, building new relationships, learning and contributing ideas back to the world. It’s a great step forward in life, but it’s only a step. Keep going. Keep growing.

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I went to college and to a top-tier graduate school, and I loved every second of it. And I’ll admit, I hope my kids choose the same path. But I also know that my job as a parent is to be there and support them, even if they choose a different way.

So to all the high school students out there, work hard to make your dreams come true. But make sure they are your dreams. Because a few years down the road, no one will still be asking that dreaded question, “So, did you get in?” Instead, they will care about what you’ve done since high school. What new ideas you’ve had. What new dreams you’ve dared to dream. What kind of person you’ve become.

And you can become that person with or without the permission of an application committee.