I am a short-term crisis counselor. For more than 15 years, I’ve guided high school seniors through applications, personal statements, deadlines and all the pressure that goes along with the process. As a college counselor in both public and private schools, I have worked with many kids, held a lot of hands and pulled out the tissue box on several occasions. And, I have survived this journey three times with my own children. The first time around, my daughter did all the work, and my husband and I “just” paid the application fees. My older son had a different approach to the process and involved me a bit more, even allowing me to drag him off to look at the college he eventually fell in love with. My younger son danced dangerously close to every deadline and finally pulled the rabbit out of the hat at the last moment. Happily, all three landed where they wanted to be, and we were still speaking to one another when the dust settled.
Some kids just need a pat on the back and a pep talk, with occasional check-ins. Other kids need more TLC and guidance, with frequent meetings to look over essays and talk about what to do next. And some kids need a foot firmly planted on their backsides from September until May. Some students are pretty young as they enter the process, while others are nearly 18 and fairly mature. So, although individual factors will differ, there are similar signposts along every journey. With apologies to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, I have come to the conclusion that for students, the college application process comprises five distinct stages: denial, anger, bargaining, gloom and acceptance.
Denial: Many students cannot conceive of life after high school and prefer to ignore all discussions that contain the words you and college. This is normal.
Anger: Once reality hits, and students begin to look at the mountains of paperwork (or electronic-work) and the number of essays they have to write, they get mighty peeved. Applying to college really cuts into the time they thought they were going to spend taking it easy senior year.
Bargaining: After you and your child have worked out a list of schools to apply to, he or she may begin to dig in. “OK, I’ll apply to this one and that one, but I will not even look at Mom-or-Dad-Went-There U!”
Gloom: All kids go through a period when they worry about being admitted to college – any college. If they don’t apply Early Decision or Early Action, they have many months to create a gloomy scenario featuring themselves becoming smaller and smaller in the rearview mirrors of their friends’ cars come September.
Acceptance: Assuming that they have applied to appropriate schools within their reach academically (with a couple of long shots thrown in for good measure), those fat envelopes (or skinny e-mails) will start arriving in the spring! Joy!
If you are a parent, is there anything you can do to make these stages more tolerable – both for you and for your family? Yes, but it might mean a gradual weaning from “hands on” to “hands off.”
Combat denial head on: within your family, figure out a time when you and your teenager can talk about college planning. Make it a priority appointment, with a beginning and an end. Sync up everyone’s handhelds so there are no conflicts. Meet weekly, if necessary, until you are assured that your teen has everything under control. Even if you are working with a private educational consultant, do the check-in to keep tabs on where things stand. Try to limit your discussions to this once-a-week schedule, otherwise Topic C will seep its way into every conversation, which is off-putting to even the most receptive students. Talk about planning campus visits, gathering information, deadlines, application fees and anything else that will help your student feel competent, confident and in control.
For the organizationally challenged student, have him or her take a look at the “Requirements Grid” on the Common Application web site (www.commonapp.org). Your student can make a similar chart, listing the colleges in deadline order. Other important information for the chart: application fees, the number of teacher recommendations asked for (if any) and additional documents the college might need from your student’s high school counseling office (i.e. secondary school reports or supplementary questionnaires). Encourage your student to list the topics for each college’s essay questions, too, because there may be possible overlaps or duplications, which may mean fewer essays to write over the long haul.
The benefit of making a chart and laying it all out like this is that seeing the “big picture” makes the task more manageable for many kids – and may lessen the “anger” that students initially feel when they see how much work they have ahead of them. Because the application process does involve work – no question about it.
When you think about finding schools that have the right fit, you might want to think about narrow fit, loose fit and doesn’t fit. Not that choosing colleges is like buying a pair of jeans, but the issue of fit has to do with what your student feels comfortable with – and that can mean academic rigor, location, distance from home, student body size, social life, athletics and so on. Your idea of what fits might differ from your child’s. Make sure that you come to some agreement about how far away from home you are willing to let your child go, how much you can afford to pay, whether you will seek financial aid, how many schools he or she can apply to and whether there any deal breakers for either of you. (What’s a deal breaker? Something you or your child feels adamantly about: anything from geographic location to political atmosphere to the presence or lack of Greek life on campus.) Work together on these issues and try to stay away from the idea that there is one perfect school. You don’t want your children to put all their eggs in one college’s basket – it’s a set-up for real disappointment if that No. 1 school says no.
Avoid answering questions about your child’s first choice school, even though everyone will start asking around Thanksgiving of his or her junior year, if not before. Keep in mind that there are more than 3,000 colleges in this country, and several of them will probably be a good fit for your child. Well-meaning friends, family and strangers may have suggestions regarding what they think is a great fit for your kid, but their information could be decades past its sell-by date. This is a good opportunity to practice the noncommittal hmmm response.
Another word to the wise for parents: Watch your pronouns when discussing your child’s college application process. Avoid the following:
“We are taking the SAT (or ACT) next month. Last time we got a xxxx (on a 2,400 scale these days!).” How did you really spend those four-plus hours on Saturday – hunched over the newspaper with a latte? OK, maybe you used a No. 2 pencil to do the crossword puzzle.
“We are applying to X, Y and Z.”
“We sent in all of our applications last month” (Neener, neener, neener).
Practice using your son or daughter’s name in the situations above. It will soon become natural. Or, better still, leave it up to the kids to share this information if they so choose. Maybe they don’t want their test scores, college aspirations and GPAs broadcast over the neighborhood network. It’s important that they see this as their process. Applying to college is one of the first steps they will take toward becoming independent young adults … and from their point of view, there is no “I” in “we.”
Parents – it’s your children’s turn! Let them own it. Suppress the urge to hover, and trust that they will get the work done. Keep an eye on deadlines, but keep your hands off the applications – especially the personal essays that many colleges require. It is critical that this writing is in the student’s own voice. (Think back to your teenage self. Could your parents have written in your voice, expressing your thoughts and worldview? Probably not.) Personal statements or essays have to be in the student’s own words in order for readers to know what an applicant thinks and feels. Yes, kids need to have someone look over their essays for obvious errors – and feedback is always a good idea. But the only question that a reader really needs to answer is: does it sound like the 17- or 18-year-old who wrote it? Is it in “their voice,” using vocabulary that is in their comfort zone? Yes? Great! It’s difficult to resist the temptation to help with the writing, but parental fingerprints are glaringly obvious to experienced readers in a college admissions office. By now you should be easing into the role of consultant, and pulling away from being a manager, anyway. It won’t be long before your sons and daughters are off where you cannot see them every day and remind (OK, nag) them about stuff that needs to be done.
There will be moments of anxiety in the long months before envelopes or e-mails begin dribbling in. This is when kids may sink into pits of despair, or are beset by doubts about their choices and their chances. During this time, try to avoid second-guessing yourself or your child. This is a time to think positive thoughts, offer support and keep communication open. Resist the temptation to “just make one call” to the admissions office; do not start a letter-writing campaign that needlessly adds to your student’s file; don’t show up with cookies, home movies or a life-sized cardboard likeness of your child wearing the college colors and waving a banner that says “Admit me!”
While you are awaiting news from colleges (and no fair peeking at the mail, including e-mail), beware of people at parties, family gatherings or in the bleachers who want to engage you in thinly veiled competitive discussions about where your son or daughter applied to college. Keep your hopes high and get on with your lives. At this point, let the process … happen. The only person the colleges want to hear from is the person whose name is on the application.
In the final stage of the college application process, your child will be accepted into college – no doubt several colleges – which he or she would gladly attend. All the angst of the last few months will be forgotten as your son or daughter looks forward to the next big adventure: college. It’s amazing how quickly most students settle in and realize that they have chosen the school that is right for them. And you will happily buy the cool sweatshirt and window decal at parents’ weekend. Feel the weight of the process slide off your shoulders onto those of the next generation about to embark on the journey, and don’t look back.
The College Board: www.collegeboard.com
One-stop shopping for information on SAT and Subject Tests, the college search and the application process. This site also contains the PROFILE which is required by many colleges for financial aid.
American College Testing Program (ACT): www.actstudent.org
A standardized test that is not the SAT, accepted by colleges who require such tests.
My Road: www.myroad.com
A separate college and career search site offered through the College Board.
California Colleges: www.californiacolleges.edu
The site for information about public and private colleges in California.
Peterson’s College Quest: www.collegequest.com
Colleges of Distinction: www.collegesofdistinction.com
Lists information about a number of liberal arts colleges and universities across the U.S.
Colleges That Change Lives: www.ctcl.com
A companion to the book, “Colleges that Change Lives.” A good source of information about liberal arts and sciences colleges.
The Common Application: www.commonapp.org
Nearly 350 colleges accept this application – fill it out once!
Financial Aid and Scholarships:
For the Free Application for Federal Student Aid: www.fafsa.ed.gov
“Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools you should know about even if you’re not a straight-A student” by Loren Pope
“Creative Colleges: A Guide for Student Actors, Artists, Dancers, Musicians and Writers” by Elaina Loveland
“The Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College” by Edward Fiske
“The Fiske Guide to Colleges 2009” by Edward Fiske
“Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College that is Best for You” by Jay Mathews
“Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years” by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger
“The Princeton Review: Best 368 Colleges, 2009 Edition”