Finding a College
For the parent of a high school senior
“My daughter starts her senior year in high school in August. There is so much to do and I have no idea where to start. I am so overwhelmed, I have more tears than smiles. I have never done anything like this before…”
Does this sound like you…or someone you know…or everyone you know?
I’ve been through this process twice now, but I won’t say “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out” or “Everyone gets in someplace — your student will be fine.” Even though those things are true, it doesn’t necessarily help when you’re overwhelmed and emotional (which, face it, we often are while parenting teens). Not to mention “don’t worry” doesn’t get us from here to there.
In a couple of months, my middle son will leave for college. There’s plenty to do beforehand, but in general this feels like a magical summer. High school is done. College awaits but, for now, he can relax (when he’s not working). He doesn’t have to grapple with the Common App, write essays, ask for recommendations, study for standardized tests, strive to achieve and impress, wonder if he’ll measure up. No one’s grading him or judging him. This summer, he can just be himself.
A year ago, he was in a different place, and so was I. Reflecting on how his senior year unfolded, and what I’ve learned through my own experience and from friends and experts, here are 9 thoughts about parenting through the senior year of high school, starting with right now, the summer before.
Do a little soul searching.
Out of earshot of your student, of course, and, yes, I’m talking about your soul. You have one, too. And as the quote that started this essay reveals, we are deeply invested — heart, brain and spirit — in the experiences of our children. This can’t help but be so. But it’s in our own and their best interest that we be self-aware so that we can intentionally place our own agendas and expectations off to the side.
If you have a spouse or co-parent who will be part of this whole adventure, start by talking to him or her. A close friend or relative who’s been through it can also be an excellent sounding board.
Honor who your student is today.
Your 16 or 17-year-old son or daughter has changed so much since high school started. The decision about college is important, but don’t get too focused on what’s around the corner. The goal of the college application will be for your student to share her grades and accomplishments but most importantly for her to communicate her authentic self. This self isn’t something she’s going to invent or fabricate for the admission committees.
In addition, this self is in process. No one is “done” at 16 or 17.
If your student is doing things she enjoys this summer, encourage her to continue them. She shouldn’t feel pressured to start new activities, over the summer or when school starts, unless they truly call to her.
Understand your child and meet him where he is.
This is both the easiest and the hardest piece of the puzzle. Your student might be energized by the college search process — studying websites, planning campus visits, etc. — or she may have given it no consideration beyond mumbling, when you ask, “yeah, I’ll probably go to college.” Sometimes the quiet ones are quiet because they’re disinterested, but their attitude may also mask anxiety.
Bring up the subject in a matter-of-fact way. “If you want to attend college next year, you need to apply. If you plan to apply, here are the things you need to think about and do. Pick a few to get done over the summer so senior fall isn’t insane.”
And don’t be afraid to suggest your student consider a less-direct path, or be open if he brings it up. Gap years are growing more and more popular, for good reason. Some students conceive of ambitious adventures; others just want to work or travel for a year. A close friend’s daughter decided to take a gap year, though her parents didn’t realize she’d come to this decision until her graduation party! It wasn’t too late for her to defer her acceptance at a school in Boston. She’ll be a year older and more confident when she starts college.
To a sibling, cousin, neighbor, classmate. This is oh-so-hard. We live in a competitive culture, and kids play the game as intensely as their parents do. Social media amplifies all of this. It’s just something to be mindful of, and it leads to my next suggestion…
Tune out the chatter.
If it’s not happening already, soon everyone will start asking you where your student wants to go to college. They’ll ask your student, too. A few people should be having this conversation with you — mainly, the high school guidance counselor — but most people don’t need to be in the loop.
This means, when they ask, you either answer with something vague (“He’s working on his list” or “He’ll probably stay in-state”) and you really lean on the period at the end of your statement so that it’s clear you don’t invite follow-up questions. Or you are braver than I was and simply say, “I’ve decided not to share that because it’s really my son’s business and it helps us keep the stress down not to talk about it with the whole world.”
Some (many!) people will be surprised by this decision. When I suggested that adults shouldn’t incessantly ask high school juniors and seniors where they’re applying to college, a friend said, “Why? It’s not like asking their weight.” (As if it wasn’t a personal question.)
Be sure your student understands that he doesn’t have to engage in this kind of conversation unless it’s with someone he really wants to share with. The dad of someone he plays sports with, the orthodontist he sees once a month but who doesn’t really know him, etc. — these people may be well intentioned, but they don’t need to know.
When you pull this out of the arena of public discourse what you’re doing is saying, “We don’t want to be influenced by the chatter, the rankings, the hype. We’ll talk to people who can help my student sort through his goals and issues.” When you put it that way, doesn’t it seem sensible?
This really was the most liberating decision I made last year when it was Evan’s turn, and one friend of his actually thanked me for not asking her where she was applying to college.
Talk about money sooner rather than later.
Year in and year out, a typical American family stresses about money more than about practically anything else. The ability to afford college is one of the things parents worry about most. So, this may seem obvious, but don’t avoid the Money Talk just because it’s sensitive and complicated. Online tools can help you figure out if your family might qualify for financial aid and if so how much. Determine what you’re willing and able to contribute to the expense of college and share this number with your student.
Make a game plan that works for your student and your family.
Most kids need help with organization, and this is where parents can play a useful role. Summer is a great time to sit down and talk about this, especially if your student wants to visit some campuses and/or is planning to retake the SAT or ACT in the fall. The top two things to work on over the summer are the college list and the Common App essay. Here’s a to-do list that you can customize.
Be ready for, and reasonable about, senior year.
Be ready but don’t be afraid. The worst thing would be for your senior to reach graduation day and realize she didn’t enjoy her last year of high school. Yes, her schedule should be challenging if she’s applying to selective colleges, but it should also be fun.
After school starts, don’t visit more campuses unless your student is really keen to (in which case the long fall weekend is a perfect time). You can learn plenty from deans’ visits to the high school, alumni interviews and websites and you can visit in person in the spring after an acceptance has been received. Same goes for testing — be realistic. My son took the ACT twice more in the fall just to raise his score one point. We didn’t know it would play out that way, but in retrospect there were better ways for him to spend his autumn Saturdays.
Love this year.
More than any time in your child’s life, your eyes are turning to the future. This needs to happen, but don’t get stuck in that position. This may be one of your most challenging years as a parent, but it can also be one of the most joyful. Make a wish list for senior year. Make those wishes come true.
*A post on UniversityParent’s Facebook page.
Also by Diane:
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