In the next 12 months, I will have finished the college application process with my youngest child. I’m wondering how it will go. Yes, I’m a college counselor by profession. Yes, I will go through this process with approximately 70 other students this year. But they are someone ELSE’S child, not mine. So, I’m sitting here at my desk wondering what I’ve learned, having personally gone through the college application process with my two older daughters and professionally with many others. What will I do differently with my youngest? What advice can I give to myself?
This year during my meetings with juniors, I asked students whether they are the oldest or only child in their family. I didn’t ask this last year. Why did I decide to ask this question? It’s because it’s important for me to know which parents are going through this process for the very first time.
It’s always interesting going through something as a parent for the first time, isn’t it? Or is it just me that has had those crazy, neurotic moments as a first-time parent? Here are some of my not-so-finer moments:
- As soon as my daughter was born, I wanted to know how she scored on the Apgar scale. That’s right. Crazy tiger mom was born the same day as my daughter. By the way, she scored a 9. I determined that my next child would score higher.
- Then everything had to be sterilized. She had to be fed on a schedule. Nap times were on the clock. Fortunately, my first-born was a quiet, docile child and cooperated with us. (She was so easy to take care of that we had the next child 17 months later. Yes, I was pregnant again 9 months later.)
- I was THAT parent who shoved other parents aside so that I could get a peek through the window of the elementary school when I dropped Hannah off to kindergarten for the first time.
- We made her try everything because I was utterly convinced that somewhere within her was a Mozart, an Einstein, or maybe even a Maria Callas (you can look her up on Wikipedia!). Here’s the list: dance class, tae kwon do (to pay homage to her Korean roots), voice lessons, piano lessons, swimming lessons, soccer, musical theater camp, real camping camp. I’m sure I’m missing something here.
- By the time it came to picking a high school, I alone agonized over whether we had made the right choice for her. For those of you who are not familiar with the NYC high school process, it’s almost worse than the college application process. No, actually, maybe it IS worse than the college process. I felt I had little control over it. Also, I’m not sure whether it’s all husbands or just mine, but these things never seemed to bother him as much as they bothered me. There’s always one spouse who worries more, isn’t there? Restless nights were spent solo while my husband slept soundly. I envied him; I still do.
So what did the college application process feel like when I went through it with my oldest child? I can describe it in five letters: STRESS. Whoops. I just realized that that’s six letters. I would be lying if I said it was really easy because I knew a lot about the process as a college counselor. The fact was, I did know more than the average parent. I sometimes think that it made it worse. You know that saying that “ignorance is bliss”? It’s sometimes true. Knowing a lot about the college application could have been helpful if I wasn’t so stressed out about the process and anxious how it would end for my oldest daughter.
So after surviving the college application process twice as a parent and countless times as a college counselor, what advice would I give to parents who are going through it for the first time? Here are the top 5:
- Let your children own the process. They’re a lot more capable than they even know sometimes. You raised them well; they’re almost adults now. Let them know that you’re there in case they have questions, but let them do the application. (Definitely stand by for help with financial aid, though!!)
- Remember that the application needs to reflect the student’s voice and tell his/her story. Although I encourage parents to review their child’s application and essay, remember that it is their application, their answers and their essay. College admissions counselors have been reading essays for a long time. A 17-year-old’s voice sounds a LOT different than a 45-year-old’s. Over editing the essay will take over your child’s ability to convey his/her true voice.
- Don’t talk about college constantly. Remember, you had a relationship with your child before he/she entered this process. You used to have interesting conversations about other things besides college. Be wise and discerning about when your child wants to talk about college. Sometimes, (s)he just isn’t going to be in the mood and your wanting to talk about it again will cause more stress.
- Log into your Naviance account from time to time. If you don’t know what that is, contact the college counselor. Naviance is a place where you can see your child’s GPA, test scores, and list of potential colleges. You can even add a college to your child’s list, as a suggestion. What Naviance won’t allow you to do is to compile the list of schools that the student is actually applying to. That part of the process has to be handled by the student.
- Get to know and develop a relationship with the college counselor (that’s me). She has experience and has worked with lots of students in helping them tell their stories to colleges. If you have a question or concern, don’t be afraid to ask the counselor. And if you don’t hear back in a few days, email her again. Remember, she’s not only your child’s college counselor. She has a full caseload and wants to get back to you, but may need a reminder.
What SHOULD parents be doing through this process that would be helpful? Here are my top 5 :
- Do the things your child is unable to do. Please note that I said “UNABLE” to do, not “doesn’t WANT to do”. For instance, if your child doesn’t drive, you will need to take him/her to visit colleges. You will definitely need to be there to help with financial aid, as most seniors don’t know a lot about tax information. But always let the student try and wait for him/her to ask for help.
- Have honest conversations with your child about finances early on in the process. Talk about how much your family can reasonably afford. Apply to your schools and complete the financial aid forms carefully, apply for scholarships. When it comes time to decide between your college acceptances, know your financial limitations. Let your child know what is and isn’t realistic.
- Do have discussions with your child about college from time to time. But ask good questions. Don’t be overbearing with your opinions. Ask how it’s going, what you can do to help. If your child is extremely organized, consider yourself blessed! If your child struggles with organization, ask how you can be helpful. Perhaps your child needs to put together a to-do list. Helping put together a chart with the colleges and all of the requirements is never a bad idea. Always ask yourself the question: Am I appropriately or inappropriately involved with my child’s application?
- Be there to support and encourage. That was your role before your child filled out college applications. Continue in that role. The application process can be anxiety-provoking for students. There are a lot of moving parts. But all students can move through it successfully with support and encouragement. They really can.
- Finally, it may be helpful to think of your role as coach. A coach is there to help the athlete know how best to prepare for a game. The coach points out strategies. But no coach plays the game for the athlete. At the end of the day, the athlete is the one who plays. So please be there to help and guide but not to take over the process. The college application process can be a wonderful time of self-discovery and growth. Parents can be a huge part of that, if they are willing to take on a coaching role.
FINALLY, one last piece of advice as I now begin this process along with all of the junior parents: Trust that God has a good plan for each student. I have seen this time and time again. Sometimes he opens a door to that dream college and it’s the perfect fit. Sometimes God shuts doors to redirect students to a place they wouldn’t have considered otherwise and it turns into that dream school. But being an overanxious and overzealous parent has never helped a student successfully navigate the college application process.
So get ready, get set, and here we go!