Changing leaves, harvest fairs, apple picking and pumpkin spice lattes are quintessential autumnal traditions. But, if you’re the parent of a high school senior, autumn is the season of college applications. This rite of passage, anxiously anticipated since your child’s first day of preschool, is finally here. The stress level around your kitchen table reaches an all-time high, every conversation leads back to drafts of the personal statement, re-taking the SAT’s and ACT’s or a strategy for Early Decision vs. Early Action applications. The college application process is daunting, laden with mixed emotions and laced with the overwhelming fear of disappointment.
As someone who has spent considerable time working with colleges/universities focused on student engagement and success, and as a parent of four children who each navigated the college application process with his or her unique personality, experiences and list of “dream” schools, I fully appreciate how stressful the college application process can be. While disappointment builds resilience, no parent wants to see his/her child build character through countless rejection letters.
But does applying to college have to be so stressful? To some extent, yes. For most seniors, this is the first critical decision point and possible rejection they have faced. They fear their hard work, academic achievements and extra-curricular contributions will not distinguish them enough to gain admission to a school of their choice. Seniors tend to focus on what they think of as weaknesses in their application packages, whether it’s a standardized test score, one poor grade, lack of a varsity sport or no significant leadership position. In our hyper-competitive, social media-oriented society, this tends to be a time of self-doubt and vulnerability even for those perceived as the best and the brightest. And the logistics of the college application process can become all-consuming. Organizing the application materials, references, transcripts and multiple essays often weigh heavily on students even with exceptional time management and organizational skills.
At the same time, parents bring their own range of emotions to this process. For most parents, the only exposure to the college admissions process may be their own experience decades earlier. Parents who typically steer their children through life’s everyday mazes, clearing obstacles and paving the way to ensure their children’s success, realize they now have no control and will be forced to relinquish the reins. Parents fear their children will be disappointed by the outcomes of the application process, a process they have no ability to influence. Lastly, parents have dreams for their children and may need to face the reality that their dreams may not align with the aspirations embraced by their sons and daughters.
So what can a parent do to be helpful through this process? What is an appropriate role? Here are some tips to guide you:
1. Resist your desire to over-engineer the process and do not broadcast your own anxiety. Thinking that you can somehow “game” the system sends a negative message to your child. As a parent, you do not need to be an expert on the college application process. Your value-added comes from knowing your child and supporting him/her through years of other challenges. The best way to support your child is to celebrate what he/she brings to the college application process. Be proud of your child and help him/her see the value of what they’ve accomplished. Don’t say: Maybe you should re-take your SAT’s for a fourth or fifth time to see if you can get 10 more points in Math. Do say: Find schools where you will be happy and where you will shine.
2. Block out background noise. Everyone is a self-proclaimed expert in college admissions and every social occasion, back-to-school night, soccer game sidelines, school concert, etc. will be an opportunity for parents to share their definitive wisdom on the do’s/don’ts of applying to college, the “hot” schools, schools that have never accepted anyone from your high school, etc. Nod politely and ignore this unsolicited advice. It’s easy for outsiders to make assumptions about your child and to project their own fears and concerns onto fellow parents.
3. Be an active listener. Be reassuring. Guide your child in thinking about his/her interests, strengths and accomplishments. Discuss times where you think he/she really flourished. Be specific about the qualities/characteristics of those examples. Seniors need to reflect on their experiences in a constructive and meaningful way. They need to hear positive feedback from you in a very concrete and specific manner. These discussions will inform the selection of schools to apply to as well as help to develop ideas for essays and personal statements. Don’t say: It’s too bad your only experience is babysitting and summer camp. Do say: You’re happiest when you’re helping younger children. You have a gift for engaging kids of all ages.
4. Be honest about where your child will thrive. Help your child think broadly about his/her options. Do not focus solely on a school you have your heart set on for him/her to attend. This could lead to great disappointment for both you and your child. Remember: there are many, many great schools to choose from and many, many schools that are potentially a great option for your son/daughter. Guide your child in selecting an appropriate range of schools. Finding the right school is about finding the right “fit” for your child, not about applying to schools based on rankings or rumors.
5. Make campus visits fun. Enjoy exploring schools together. Campus visits are a wonderful time to spend time with your child and to be a helpful observer and great listener. Take cues from your child. If he/she seems disinterested, you do not need to spend two hours on an excruciating walking tour. If he/she wants to visit the bookstore, buy a t-shirt or have lunch in the student center, it’s probably a good sign that he/she feels more comfortable.
Finally, rest assured—the admissions process does work. Although many people feel that applying to college is like playing the lottery, college admissions offices are highly functioning, effective operations led by dedicated professionals who thoughtfully combine the appropriate balance of art and science when evaluating candidates. Admissions counselors are skillful at identifying candidates who would both thrive in their school’s environment and contribute greatly to the college community. For every child, there are multiple options that would be excellent choices and you can play a critical role in setting up your child for success by being a great cheerleader and supporter for whatever path he/she chooses. Once your child commits to a school, wears the logoed t-shirt and buys a decal for your car, you know he/she is preparing for a successful launch. The best words you can say: Any school would be lucky to have you!
Lisa Hills is an organizational strategist and workplace expert based in the Boston area with over 25 years of experience working with colleges, universities and independent schools. A former Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Director of the Hiatt Career Development Center at Brandeis University, Lisa loves talking to students about their interests and guiding them in their college exploration process. Want to start a conversation with Lisa? firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-901-9712