Picture a roller coaster. Not a small, beginner-level one but an epic, change-your-life, go-through-all-the emotions one. Envision one with the most stunning twists, the most jaw-dropping peaks, and the most stomach-churning drops. Got that picture in your head? Good, because those crests, valleys, and loops, in truth, can also represent the daunting nature of the college admission process. But they don’t have to.
Whether it’s your first time parenting through it or it’s your fifth, approaching the college admission process can be stressful and downright intimidating. But we believe that with some planning and practical tools, it doesn’t have to be, and we’re here to help. As educational consultants for a combined thirty years, we have journeyed alongside our students through the college admission process hundreds of times. And having been through it so many times, we are here to tell you that there is hope. There is a way to navigate this process while not simply surviving but instead thriving —and also preserving your relationship with your teen. We’ve pulled together our best advice on how to approach the college admission process with sensitivity, realistic expectations, and just the right amount of support to turn that beast of a roller coaster into a smooth, easy ride.
- Start talking about colleges early. Don’t wait until the fall of senior year to begin the conversation. Does your son want to attend college in a big city or in a small college town? Does your daughter see herself at a specialized school such as a college for women, or perhaps one that is art or technology focused? Does your son need a hands-on learning environment with easy access to professors? Let your teen explore all different types of schools, whether or not you know anything about them. The most critical thing to master here is to keep your biases at bay. The limited knowledge you had about a college 30 years ago likely isn’t relevant today. Keep an open mind; if you and your teen aren’t familiar with a school, encourage your teen to explore it with curiosity. (After all, with 4,000 colleges to choose from, you never know what hidden gems you’ll discover.)
- You had your turn. If you attended college, you already experienced the application process, even if it was decades ago. And even if you didn’t attend college, you did have your opportunity to soak up the teenage years. Now it’s your teen’s turn. Let him express his own desires for his future, and give him the space he needs to explore that—even if it isn’t what you would choose for him. Keep in mind that he already feels the pressure from his peers who are going through this process alongside him. It may be difficult to relinquish some control, and it might even seem counterintuitive, but for the long-term sake of your relationship, your teen needs to feel that you trust him to navigate his own path.
- Encourage teacher relationships. Your teen should get in the practice of cultivating meaningful personal connections with teachers beyond the classroom. Not only is it critical for teens to become comfortable conversing with adults, but also teachers will write letters of recommendation for college. Most importantly, though, these adults can become trusted advisors. You can also help your teen get in the practice of thanking teachers after each class; expressing consistent gratitude goes a long way (just trust us on this one).
- Don’t obsess over college rankings. Many families are unaware that college rankings lists can be manipulated and the data behind them can be misrepresented. Consider this: College rankings lists rely on proxies for their measures, and most of them don’t include aspects like the presence of mentors or student debt load. Instead of encouraging your teen to base his college list on a list of schools assigned arbitrary numbers, encourage him instead to assess his fit for each school based on his learning style, access to professors, and academic goals.
- Visit colleges. There are many opportunities for your teen to take the lead in the college admission process, and planning visits is certainly one of them. Let your teen research campus tours and information sessions. Now that more colleges are allowing visitors, if your financial situation allows you to travel to a campus or two, we encourage you to do it. Seeing colleges in person helps students to tangibly grasp what they’re working toward and to become invested in the college admission process; it can also be instrumental in assessing a school’s fit for your student’s unique academic needs. Helpful tip: If your family is already planning a vacation, you can even pop by a nearby college just to give your student a taste of campus life. If travel is not a reality for your family, check out the in-depth virtual tours that can be found on most schools’ websites or on other resources like campustours.com.
- Encourage your rising senior to work on college applications over the summer. Brainstorm college essay topics, too. Waiting until winter break of senior year makes the application process rushed and unnecessarily stressful. Summer is an ideal time to get a head start on essays and to fill out applications. You can help your student get her creative writing juices flowing when you pull out old photo albums and scrapbooks and share family memories and traditions. Those stories make up the fabric of her life, and often they provide the foundation of a terrific personal statement. But don’t write any college essays for your teen. Don’t even think about it. And while we’re on the topic, heavily editing also takes away her unique voice. Celebrate that voice by letting her employ teen-appropriate language (not the language you cultivated with your graduate English degree).
- Have discussions long before college decision day. Consider the aforementioned roller coaster analogy. Much like the highs and lows of a carnival ride, your student will almost certainly experience great joy alongside crushing heartache when it comes to admission decisions. Plan ahead. Start talking about frustrating outcomes long before admission decisions are released. Your student will not gain admission to some schools, and that’s completely normal. Your conversations will help to destigmatize these disappointing admission decisions. Communicate to your teen that no matter what happens, you are proud of the effort he put into his high school years and specifically into his applications. When the inevitable pain does surface, sit through it with your teen. Don’t rush to take it away. Instead, let him experience the disappointment while you (maybe metaphorically) hold his hand through it.
- Be open to alternative routes after high school. If this year of quarantine has taught us anything, it’s the importance of flexibility. Not every teen is destined to attend college right out of high school. Many are choosing to take gap years, go straight into the workforce, join the military, or attend trade schools or community colleges. Be open and sensitive to these other roads that your teen may want to take.
- Find your village. Connect with like-minded parents who don’t overparent and who don’t compete with you but who genuinely see and appreciate their teens for who they are and not who they want them to be—just like you do. It truly does take a village, and having a trusted network provides the support and accountability you’ll need to come out of this process intact.
So you see? With some advance planning and intentional thought, you can support your teen through the college admission process in a way that gives him a sense of control and the confidence he’ll need to thrive beyond high school. But it involves knowing your place. It means being brave. Being strong. And finding your village. Check out our book The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen's Wellness and Academic Journey in Today's Competitive World for more ideas on how you can navigate the twists and turns of this challenging yet exciting life stage.
Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick, MA, is a graduate of Stanford University and has been working in education for the past 25+ years as a former Assistant Director of College Admission, high school teacher, educational consultant, and author of five other education-related books. She speaks professionally to parent, student, teacher, and business groups on topics such as study skills, the adolescent journey, college admission, and now the parent compass movement.
Jenn Curtis, MSW, earned a BA from UCLA and MSW from USC, and is an author, educational consultant, and professional speaker. As owner of FutureWise Consulting, she has worked with hundreds of students throughout the United States on every aspect of the college admission process. She is particularly passionate about empowering teens to approach life with intention and educating parents about how to follow their parent compass.
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