Parent expectations and the college admission experience
By Lucy Ewing
Parents can be unrecognizable during the college admissions process.
We turn into nervous nags hounding our students to find more scholarships…bug-eyed bookies running spreadsheets of where classmates have been accepted…travel agents for two years of family trips that look suspiciously like campus visits…intense team owners who hire a fleet of coaches and trainers to maximize the applications. By degrees, we are all one (or two) of these. What in the world are we thinking?!
The motivations for these behaviors are many. Maybe we didn’t get to go to the college of our choice. Maybe we have children with specific interests and career goals that require entrance at only a select few colleges. Maybe we are hoping to continue a legacy at a flagship state U. that’s been discovered by talented out-of-state and international students which means fewer spots for deserving local kids. Maybe we didn’t go to college at all and want to fulfill an altogether different family dream.
Even for the more level-headed among us, there is no doubt that parents perceive the process today to have higher stakes than when we attended college.
But hey, no pressure on your teenager who is trying to juggle a full load of college prep classes, extracurricular commitments and hormones while writing the perfect essay and acing the ACT.
Parents who have been through the process share insights about what worked for them — and their students.
Face finances first.
Let your student in on the family financial picture and what is possible (i.e., have “The Money Talk”). Since many students find the idea of going out of state alluring, families often establish a tuition ceiling equivalent to a state public university. Help crunch the numbers to see which “wish” schools can stay on the list. “College is important but I don’t think graduating with a tremendous amount of debt is worth it. You have to look at your investment wisely,” says the mother of a Colorado student attending a private college in Boston on a partial scholarship.
Put it in perspective.
One mom says she worried frantically about her son’s GPA and prospects for college until her husband reminded her that there were plenty of schools that would want their money. Says another parent, “Everything is ‘higher stakes’ than in previous generations — and to some extent I think it is baloney. Just as not every student attends an Ivy League college, not every student is going to start a multi-million dollar startup while still an undergraduate.”
Evaluate your values.
When it comes right down to it, parents have a common refrain about what they wish for in their children’s college experiences beyond the academic growth: to make strong friends; to mature emotionally; and to become independent, including financial literacy. In fact, when asked to apportion 100% among several experience categories, most parents allocated 40% among “social opportunities” and “independence.” Says a parent, “Life skills are harder to learn now than they were in 1974.” Colleges, lots of colleges, are a good training ground.
Cast the net wide.
Personal fit is more important than rank on a list. What kind of college experience does your student want to have? Consider the MIT alums who supported their brilliant and shy son’s decision to attend a small liberal arts school in the Pacific Northwest. He received tremendous attention from his skilled professors, boisterous referrals to a prestigious exchange university in Prague, and a foundation grant to a top-rated grad program.
Trust the support system — and your student.
High school counselors and teachers are well-oriented to the application process. Some upper level English teachers allocate weeks for the development of the college essay. Valuable information is provided at parent nights, and many high schools have access to college and career online planning tools like Naviance. The important point is that students can and should be in the driver’s seat. If you find that you are doing everything for your student, a greater concern might be your student’s own motivation or ability to proceed, or your over-involvement.
Be there as needed.
Deadlines are deal-breakers, so it’s helpful for the family to know those dates. Students also appreciate discussions of the pros and cons of choice colleges. “We supported our children’s colleges and choices of majors, even when they were surprising,” says the parent of twins.
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