Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author
So first off, let me acknowledge your desire to jump in here. I'm impressed by how much you care and you're willingness to engage in such a difficult discussion. You've assessed the situation well - in all it's dimensions. It looks like your friend is headed in the wrong direction. Worse, the trajectory she's on presents serious risks to her happiness and success.
Before you dive in, you may want to ask yourself, can you help? I know you want to help - that much is clear - but help is a tricky thing. Help is something you can offer, but typically only people who want to be helped or can recognize the impossibility of their situation, will accept. It's a maddening thing, but the magic ingredient for success. This is a long way of saying you may not be able to change anything here.
You face several obstacles - including a parent who may be over-identified with her child (cue the psychologists) - and that this relationship is very grooved and deep-rooted. There's also the fact that the train may have left the station. How far along is the commitment to that school when you say, "accepted her Mom's choice." More importantly it sounds as though your friend is not very self-aware, or won't acknowledge how she operates as a student. On top of that, she clearly does not know how to stand up to her Mom and advocate for herself. These are the core issues as I see them.
What is the mindset of your friend? Is she is an open person or closed off? Your ability to reach her may depend on whether you can get through. What exactly is preventing her from making the right decision, or at least a better one? Try to identify that for her, or with her. Is it fear? The desire to please her mother? The need to be perfect, and get great grades? If you can flesh that out, it will help guide you in your approach. Most people live lives of quiet dysfunction. As an outsider, you see the irrationality and the poor decision-making you believe they've engaged in. To them, it's all they know.
I see other themes you can focus on. The first one is Mom making the college choice. Is it a prestigious school? One that comes with bragging rights? Some parents only know how to live through their child. But college is not a bumper sticker to be displayed on one's car. It's a critical match to be made between student and environment. You should impress upon your friend the importance of selecting the school herself, not caving to her Mom. Four years of going to a particular "name" school might look good on a bumper sticker, but it can look like misery for a student stuck with the wrong choice. Remind your friend that where she goes to college will affect her 24/7, that she will have to live with this decision - day by day, moment by moment - not her Mother. I know students who have spent their entire freshman year holed up in their dorm room. College is challenging enough without also feeling isolated. Is this a college where the fit is so off, this could happen? Have your friend close her eyes and picture herself in this position. Could she handle it?
I also suggest you let your friend know that college is the first big upset to the parent and child relationship. It's a scary time of breaking away, so much so the colleges address this through programs aimed at getting parents to let go. Morehouse College has a ceremony called, "Parting Ways". The New York Times describes this as, "Students Welcome to College: Parents, Go Home." It's time your friend's mother let go. Introduce your friend to the idea that this is her life to live, and becoming independent is not only necessary, but healthy. She stands on the cusp of adulthood, and so this is the first of many decisions she, not her mother, needs to make.
As for the academic fit, this is a biggie. College is a vulnerable time. Based on what you described - your friend's constant worry about grades, and over attention to studying - she seems tough on herself. The wrong school can make her particularly vulnerable. High school is a place where if a student works hard enough, success will come. College ups the ante. Academics and the workload can be fierce, and there is the simultaneous stressor of living away from home for the first time. It sounds as though Mom's college choice is on the more competitive side academically. Here's a talking point: this college may be setting her up for failure - and - ironically, not the success her Mom craves. And so the logic here - for both Mom and daughter - is flawed. Neither will get what they want.
Your job here is to get your friend to be true to herself. And off the gerbil wheel of perfection. She has to be honest about her academic crunch power and where she belongs. Imagine how good it would feel to reduce some of that academic pressure! And to live with less anxiety about grades. Dangle that carrot! You can also imply that such self-imposed pressure is unsustainable for another 4 years, and bound to implode on her, especially at the wrong school. Further, thousands of people become successful, invent cool things, and go on to meaningful careers who never went to college, or quite frankly, got straight Cs. Remind her - there is not exactly a correlation to the performance she is obsessing about, and her post college future, though I am not advocating Cs. And if she is headed to graduate school, grades do matter. But you can get A's at your regional state school and any elite grad school will look at those grades very favorably. They won't be discounted because the A's did not come from say a top 20 college.
My preference for any student is to go where they can well manage the academics, and be a big fish in a littler pond. Every year tons of kids go to an Ivy, or the most prestigious school on their list, only to be overwhelmed by the level at which their peers operate and then perceive themselves a failure. Confidence and self esteem are critical to doing well in life. I'm against any environment that chips away at that.
You need to refocus the college decision for her around fit. Period. She needs to be at a school where she will find people with similar values, can be herself, and will find her niche. If she is so afraid of disappointing Mom, share this with her. Kids who wind up unhappy at their college - drop out, make risky decisions, get bad grades, become depressed and/or transfer. While I'm all for transferring as a positive step - you never really know what a school is like until you get there - it makes no sense to head off to college knowing the fit is wrong.
Whether it's college, grad school, job, career, or a romantic partner, it takes emotional courage and intelligence to recognize the importance of fit. It's the people who figure out where they belong - early in life - who go on to more successful and rewarding lives. I know her Mom may not see it that way - but you and I do. Here's hoping you can convince her too!