Thrive on Campus//

Parenting Through the College Search Process

Lessons I learned navigating two children through their senior years.

Courtesy of 9dream studio / Shutterstock
Courtesy of 9dream studio / Shutterstock

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The stakes have never been higher for kids applying to college.  

As a parent, it is so easy to focus on the outcome only and lose sight of the journey your child is on from that first college visit through the final decision.  Having two children apply to, get in and chose a college this year, there were moments it got the better of me as a mother and us as a family and many times it felt like we got it right.  

In the end, there were five important lessons we learned that enabled us to thrive through a year of college visits, counselor meetings, family dinners, standardized tests, applications and the decision process.

Set boundaries about how often you’re going to talk about college and with whom

By far the best advice we got as we started the process was to pick a single day of the week to discuss college and keep the other six days of the week for other things.  

Applying to college can become all consuming for parents and children if you don’t set some clear boundaries.  By sticking to one day of the week, our family didn’t lose sight of all the rest of life during this milestone year of our children’s lives.

We applied this rule to other people as well.  It gave our kids an out when they didn’t want to discuss where they were applying or how it was going.  For a year of their lives, all anyone wants to talk with your children about is college. It can create incredible pressure.  More than once, my children would tell someone “Sorry, we only talk about college on Saturdays.” It was an important empowerment tool for them.

Discuss as a family what you are going to share with others and who gets to share it

Early on and frequently, we discussed what information the kids were each willing to share with other people. We wanted them have control of the information and to back them up when they said they didn’t want to share more.  

It was very hard when there was good news or when there was something interesting in the process to hold back from sharing with family and friends.  We had ongoing conversations about whether the kids or the parents got to share updates. The benefit of that was the constant reminder that this was the children’s process, not the parents.  Holding fast together to those boundaries, meant the kids were willing to share a lot with us as parents without having to worry about who else would hear it. That trust was critical during the heightened stress moments for them.

Everyone’s going to have an opinion everyone

You will be stunned about how many people will have an opinion about college for your children.  Of course, grandparents, aunts and uncles, close friends all wish the best and have thoughts. Sometimes those can be very strong and add to the pressure you are all feeling.  

Remarkably people who are only loosely connected with you will have very strong opinions as well.  The woman sitting next to me while getting a haircut who overheard my stylist asking about it, gave me her thoughts for ten minutes.  

The real pressure comes from the other families going through this process as the same time.  Depending on how big your child’s circle of friends is and how big their high school is, your family will be on the same journey as many people you know.  In the days of social media, you and your child will be seeing a curated version of other people’s process. Lovely pictures and posts of school visits, announcements of every school to which other kids are admitted and scholarships they get show one version of the event unfolding.  Do your best to ignore them.

On our summer vacation before senior year, we discussed the pressure from other people’s opinions.  We were clear as a family that our opinions and most specifically the children’s were what mattered. The expectation was to be polite when receiving all kinds of (unsolicited) advice but to remember the only bar we were measuring against, was the ones we set for ourselves.

They need to love their list.  And so do you.

When my generation applied to college, the final list was between four and six schools and most of us had one stretch school, a couple of “safety schools” and everything else was in the middle.  The number of schools seniors apply to now is much longer. We came in around ten but some of their friends applied to as many as eighteen.

The number is less important that everyone agreeing on the list.  

As a parent, you have to agree that any school on the list is one you are going to agree they go to.  Setting aside the huge financial decisions you will make and how that impacts the final decision, arguing over the the schools on the list once the decisions are in would be tough.  We agreed as a family to have our say before the list was final and any school on the list would be fine with us as parents.

For your child, there cannot be a “consolation prize” school or one they apply to because you make them.  In the strange turn of events, should your child get into only a single school, they will be best set up for success if they are happy with all of their schools.  Of course, they will be wishing for some over others, but it is impossible to predict how the decisions will come in. I can’t imagine if a school we required or one they didn’t really want were the only one the child had as an option.

This is your child’s process

As a final thought, your process is about learning to let go.  Applying to, getting into and deciding on college is a huge decision for our children and it was hard not to make it about us at times.  By setting the right boundaries and agreeing on what decisions they would totally own and what parameters existed around that, it was the first step in sending them out into the world.  

You will vacillate between the feeling that it is all going too fast and being ready for them to leave as soon as possible.  The funny thing is, so will your children. As you go through this as a family, remember that figuring out what your new normal will be as your children move into this next phase is a part that needs as much attention as essays, tests and the excitement when decisions are rolling in.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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