“I will be the first failure in my family.”
As a counselor who specializes in college admissions and a parent of high school students myself, these are the types of comments I hear from students on a regular basis. I could write a book about how applying to college has become a pressure cooker. Instead, I want to focus on the one thing parents have control over in this process: ourselves.
I know firsthand from sometimes devastating experience that our kids are struggling and we can’t wait for the colleges or the college board or whoever to change the process. It is up to us to support our children in a way that ensures they not only get to college, but thrive once there.
Here are some ways parents can take the pressure off our high school seniors.
If we want our students to breathe easier in the admissions process, we must first breathe easier.
“One of the most important ways to take the pressure off your teen’s senior year is to take the pressure off yourself,” said Lisa Heffernan, author and co-founder of Grown and Flown, and mother of three seniors.
“We need to remind ourselves again and again that there are many incredible opportunities ahead of our teenagers at the next stage of their lives,” Heffernan said. “There is no single path, no path that we should follow. In one year, we want the teenager who leaves our homes to feel confident, loved and able to take on the responsibilities of adult life. Our last year as parents should be towards these ends.’
“I think most parents — if they really talk to their friends and think about their network — will realize pretty quickly that success is nonlinear and there are many paths to success,” said Rick Clark, Georgia’s director of undergraduate admissions. Tech. “Very few of them just depend on where you go to college.” You have to really believe it if you even hope your child will.
Be careful not to treat your child’s choice of higher education as a bullet point on your parenting resume. A bumper sticker on your car won’t validate your parentage, and an Ivy League degree won’t guarantee your kid’s success—especially if he shows up on an Ivy League campus broke and unhappy about the process of getting there.
“Believe in your student more than in the brand,” urged test prep expert and college counselor Jennifer Jessie. “You must have an unshakable belief that you have prepared your student for future challenges.”
“He cares more about his student than the name on his shirt.”
Set a time or day to talk about college
Parents will often bring up the topic of college or applications whenever they catch up with their elusive seniors. If you don’t want your wary teen to start avoiding you for fear of bringing up the “C” word again, set a time or day when you agree to bring it up and he can expect a discussion.
“Build it into your weekly routine so your kids can anticipate it,” said Ohio clinical psychologist Sarah Cain Spannagel. “Ask them when the topic is definitely off-limits, like at the dinner table, on the drive home from the game, or with siblings and friends.” Your children need to trust that you are a safe place for them, especially in their senior year.
Ask family members not to bring up the topic around the holidays, especially Thanksgiving or Christmas, when there are deadlines or decisions to make, Heffernan said. “Part of the pressure on the elderly is the never-ending barrage of questions from loving, well-meaning adults.”
One of the first things I stress to parents is to be thoughtful about how we talk about college.
The phrase “safety school” doesn’t sound like a place anyone would want to go. Try talking about colleges as “more likely,” “goals,” or “achievements.” Challenge yourself to define what “good college” is. All colleges and universities have strengths and weaknesses; I could tell you something “good” about just about every one of them.
Another term to eliminate from your vocabulary: “dream school”.
“For me, ‘dream college’ is one of the most dangerous terms in admissions. It creates a unique focus,” said Jessie.
“My favorite question to tell people to ask an admissions officer is, ‘I love this college; it seems like a dream. We both know you don’t accept every student who applies. What colleges would you say give the same feel and atmosphere and have the same commitments as this college?’” said Jessie. “I’ve seen students add many ‘seemingly dream’ colleges to their lists this way, and then, even if they were rejected from their ‘dream college,’ they ended up at colleges they love using this method.”
Prioritize attending ‘more likely’ schools
Often the first thing parents want to do when they start planning college visits is to book a flight to Boston. Parents like to make a pilgrimage to Cambridge and choose their own scarlet jacket.
But Harvard ultimately accepted just 3.19 percent of 61,220 applicants. It would be much more helpful – and send an important message to your teenager – to prioritize trips over more likely options, such as those with an acceptance rate above 70 percent, for example. If students can envision themselves on these four-wheelers, it can make a big difference in how they make their potential admissions decisions.
If you must attend Harvard, also visit neighboring schools with varying acceptance rates, such as Boston University, Suffolk University, Emerson College, or the University of Massachusetts Boston, to name a few.
Consider not reading their essays
As a high school senior, I asked my father, who majored in English at Princeton, to read my college essay. He returned it covered in red ticks. My stomach dropped and my throat tightened as I held back burning tears, a feeling I remember 30 years later. In retrospect, his corrections were good, but to my hopeful 17-year-old heart, they were devastating.
Some students want their parents to read their personal essays, but some definitely don’t. Don’t force it if they want to keep it to themselves. If your child asks you to proofread their essay, it’s fine to point out a typo, but you should refer them to a counselor or teacher for more substantive edits. Treat this essay like a picture they drew you when they were 4: it’s brilliant for you. Let others give constructive criticism. Save the red ink and just tell your child you’re proud of them.
When your student receives an acceptance letter, make it a big deal, Clark said. “Celebrate every victory. Treat every reception with the same amount of enthusiasm.”
Any university your child applies to should be one they would be happy to attend, and being denied admissions to more likely schools only adds to the importance of decision letters from more selective schools. When your senior finds out he’s going to college, whether it’s Stanford or State U Down the Street, do your equivalent of the touchdown dance. It should be a fun and happy time for all of you.
Try not to manage the college admissions process for your almost grown children. When you are reasonably confident that your student understands the process and general timeline, back off. It’s hard to be a child’s mom or dad and their university advisor at the same time. Go back to the basics: feed them, hug them, and love them. Don’t let either of you remember applying to college the most when you look back on those last moments of childhood.
Remember: many colleges and universities accept more than half of their applicants. “There’s a college out there looking for your kid,” Jessie said. “At the end of the day, colleges need students. Even the most rejecting faculties need students.”
These colleges want your kids for who they are. “Encourage your child to be authentic in the process,” said Karen Richardson, dean of admissions at Princeton University. “Admissions offices want to understand who the candidate is, what is important to them and how they think about things. There is no ‘correct’ answer. Let them be themselves.”
Making our children feel loved should be the main goal in their senior year. “Some of the most important parenting we do is when our kids are applying to college,” Heffernan said. “Our teenagers live in a world of relentless judgment. It is easy to underestimate how difficult this is for them.
“They need to know, whatever path their lives take, our love goes with them.”
Have a parenting question? Ask The Post.