When Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington started the popular Grown & Flown website, they sought to be a central resource for parents of teens, and as the years passed, they gathered a comprehensive amount of content to help guide families through the teen years and beyond. Among those tips were hundreds of nuggets about the college process -- starting with admissions planning and working through the challenges that many families don't foresee, such as the stress of having kids leave the nest -- and even the stress of them returning if they don't like where they've ended up.
Heffernan and Harrington recently put some of their most important tips into a new format, and their Grown & Flown book is hitting shelves tomorrow. It includes an entire chapter about the college admission process, as well as many other pieces of advice for those whose kids are working toward independence. College Confidential sat down with them to ask some questions about college that might help bring some clarity to families who are going through the process right now.
College Confidential: In your chapter about college admissions, you mention how the focus on the college list should be on the student, not the parent. It can sometimes be hard for a parent to accept the fact that a student is headed to a school that the parent wouldn't have selected for then. Would you say the same is true for college majors?
Grown & Flown: We say this because as parents it is easy to bring our baggage from 30 years ago into the process. We may want our teens to go to the school that our brother had such a good experience at or that we have heard something great about. But this is very much their lives and we need to consult with them, talk with them and then let them decide. Colleges and the employment landscape have changed so much in 30 years that it is important for us to recognize that some of what we know is out of date and no longer relevant or true. This applies to majors and to colleges.
Parents may not realize that young adults go into banking with a history major or into government with a language major. In many cases it is the courses you took, rather than the actual major that matters. For example, a student who has learned to code in college but majored in Greek will do fine on a technical interview for a tech company. More and more employers are looking at the skills students possess, not just what is on their transcript.
CC: Suppose your child calls from college and hates it. How does a parent resist the urge to pick the student up immediately and work on transfer applications vs. having them stick it out to see what the issues really are?
G&F: Your child is likely to call sometime and say they hate it. They may hate their roommate. They may hate being homesick. They may, and almost certainly will, hate finals. It is important to listen to what they are saying and try to decide first if it is a transient problem (a professor they dislike in one class, one semester or homesickness -- which more than 50 percent of students experience.) Second, is there a solution on campus to the problem and is it something your student can seek out? Finally, sticking something out in many cases (but not all!) is a valuable lesson and while this may not be the college they graduate from, can they stay and finish the semester with credits that will transfer?
CC: What's the number one biggest mistake you see parents making during the admissions process?
G&F: It is hard to say that there is one problem. Parents can sometimes make a stressful process more stressful and that is almost always as mistake. Taking a page out of Frank Bruni's wonderful book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, we need to reassure our teens that there are lots of great place to go to college where they will get an amazing education.
Parents can set their teens up with overly high expectations about college, like describing it as "the best four years of your life" so that when they are homesick the first semester or struggling to find their place, they feel that they have failed and need to leave. We need to be more realistic about what college is like and convey that it is wonderful but also has its social and intellectual challenges.
Finally, parents need to use this time to help their teens learn the skills to manage this highly complex process. For many families, college is one of their largest financial investments and leaving it up to a 17-year-old to figure out all the steps can create costly mistakes. While parents should not be the ones to do the work, they can help their teens create a spreadsheet to track application deadlines and requirements. They can work together on making the logistical arrangements for campus touring that may require airline, hotel and rental car reservations.
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