Carolyn Z. Lawrence Educational Consultant

For Parents: Dealing With College Admissions Stress  

by Carolyn Z. Lawrence,

Feeling anxious? Stressed? A little teary-eyed? Welcome to the roller coaster ride of watching your child apply to college.  Even the calmest, most well-informed parent can sometimes feel a little...on edge during their child's college admissions journey. Here are the most common worries parents usually express, and some advice on how to make the journey a bit less harrowing.


"My child doesn't seem interested in looking at colleges!"


Let's face it, for most high school students, college is a fuzzy concept.  Sure, they know that eventually high school will end, but right now hanging out with friends and studying for next week's math test are much more pressing concerns in their minds. If your child isn't chomping at the bit to hop in the car and take a nationwide tour of college campuses, don't despair.  Start slowly. Buy a few college guidebooks and leave them lying around the house in conspicuous places. Find out when local college fairs are scheduled in your area, and offer to drive your child and a few of his or her friends to the next fair. Add a few quick drive-by visits of colleges located along your vacation route. In short, keep college search pressure low key and eventually most kids will start getting interested. However, if your child seems particularly reluctant to go to a  four-year college right after high school, keep in mind that there are other options for life after high school.  If your child isn't interested in heading to a four-year college immediately, help your child find and evaluate two-year college options, gap year programs, and job training and apprenticeship opportunities just as you would help them find and choose four-year colleges. The truth is, college is not always the right choice for everyone --- and there are plenty of successful and happy people who never attended or graduated from a four-year college. 


"We'll never be able to afford college!"


The question of how to pay for college is a common, understandable concern for most families. The time to address this worry, however, is not at the end of your child's college search, but rather at the beginning. First, get an early estimate eligibility your family's eligiblity for need-based financial aid using an online calculator (I recommend the College Board's calculator). Next, have an honest discussion with your child about a college budget that your family can afford using a combination of family income, savings, and student/parent loans. Remember: you may have to stretch a bit to pay for college, but putting your family at financial risk is never a smart idea.  By Federal law, every college must provide an online Net Price Calculator for families to use to get an estimate of what they are likely to be asked to pay. A college's Net Price Calculator can be found on its website. Before a college is added to your child's list, run your family's financial numbers through its Net Price Calculator to see if financial aid or scholarships are likely to bring the college within range of your family budget. Make sure that your child's list includes several financial "safe bets" -- colleges where your child is likely to receive enough in grants and scholarships to make the school a realistic option for your family. Once the financial safe bets are on the list, it's OK to add colleges that may be financial stretches, but be honest with your child if the final decision is going to come down to money.  Paying for college is seldom a breeze, but these simple steps can help avoid surprises and ensure that your family ends up with a plan for paying for college that works.


"My child will be devastated if he doesn't get into his top choice college!"


Disappointment is, unfortunately, often a part of life.  While we'd all like to protect our children from disappointment, in reality the most important gift any parent can give their child during the college application process is demonstrating strong faith in their child's resiliency and ability to cope even if the college admissions news in April is disappointing. Will your child feel sad and let down if a thin envelope instead of a fat one shows up in the mailbox?  Of course. But, most students will quickly recover and move on.  If you let your child know right from the beginning that you believe that if things don't turn out as planned, your child will not only survive but thrive somewhere else, your child will be able to move on faster, and start thriving sooner.


"My child could never be happy at a college that no one has ever heard of!"


The name recognition of a college actually has zero correlation with the chance that any particular student will be happy and successful.  Instead, what matters is the match between the student's learning and social styles and the college's academic and social environments. Most people can only name a handful of the 2,400-plus colleges and universities in the U.S.  Yet, not only are there happy and successful students at every single college, there are dozens of schools where your child can find a satisfying and happy home. Don't limit your child's options by focusing on a nebulous measure like name recognition. Focus on helping your child find the right match. Remember: Where your child attends college is not a measure of how successful you've been as a parent.


"My child will surely make the wrong college choice!"


It's very hard to watch our children struggle with such a major decision, and almost impossible not to worry about the outcome. However, ultimately, parents do have to step back and trust their child's judgment about where to apply and where they will attend.  The college decision, after all, is the first step into adulthood.  It may help to keep in mind that if your child does happen to make a decision they regret, that the decision can be reversed. About a third of students graduate from a different college than the one they started at as freshmen. There's no shame in transferring!


"Everyone seems to think that my child is applying to the wrong colleges!"


We all like assurances that we're headed in the right direction, but try to resist the urge to ask everyone from your neighbor to the mailman about your child's college list.  The more opinions that are thrown into the pot, the less likely it is that you and your child will hear the only two opinions that really matter: your child's and your own.  And, the more people who know about your child's college list, the more you'll worry about the eventual outcome because, let's face it, no one likes to have tell people that their child has been rejected. So, when you're asked where your child's applying, just smile, shrug, and say, "Oh, John's interested in several colleges. We'll have to see how it all turns out." Then immediately change the subject. Encourage your child to do the same.


"My child is so special and talented that any college will be glad to have her."


Ironically, parents who are prone to saying this are often the most stressed out. That's because deep down they know the truth: When it comes to college admissions, there are no guarantees. Valedictorians, students with perfect SAT scores, and students with amazing talents sometimes get rejected just like less impressive applicants. Therefore, it's best to be realistic about your child's strengths and weaknesses (and every applicant has both!) in order to help your child develop a well-rounded list.  No one - no matter how perfect or remarkable they may seem - should apply solely to schools that reject 90% or more of applicants.  Even "perfect" applicants need a backup plan.


"My child's college application essay is horrible!"


Many parents get worried when they read their child's application essays.  After all, they sound so...well, like a 17-year or 18-year-old wrote them! And, that's just the point: Colleges want and expect to read essays that sound like your child, not like an adult.  So, although it may be hard not to get out your red pen and totally rewrite your child's essay, try to resist.  Don't worry too much about whether the topic they've chosen is "best."  As long as the essay is not obscene, easily misinterpreted, or likely to upset a reader, most essay topics work just fine as long as they are written from the student's heart.


"My child will never finish his applications on time!"


Parents have plenty of experience meeting deadlines and filling out applications for everything from jobs to credit cards. Why, they wonder, is it taking my kid so darned long to fill out his college applications?  The truth is, most students work at their own speed when it comes to getting a handle on college applications. They may be uncertain of how to begin, or they may be temporarily stalled by sheer panic at the monumental task of typing in their social security number. Eventually, most students will get down to work and get their applications out before the deadline (granted, sometimes moments before the deadline, but still, on time).


"My child will be rejected everywhere!"


Almost every parent has this fear at some point. The media likes to play up stories of students being denied at every college they apply to, but, in truth, the vast majority of students find themselves with solid college choices as long as  they have applied to a thoughtful and realistic list of colleges, and treated each application with seriousness.  Even if the worst happens, and a student ends up unhappy with their choices, it is not the end of the world. Many colleges still have openings for the fall into May and later and will take a look at a last minute application or two.  A gap year can also give students a much-needed chance to reassess where they would fit in best and to re-apply with an even better application the following year. Help your child to choose a realistic college list for their admissions profile and encourage them to put together an application that does a good job of reflecting their personal strengths.  The rest, as they say, is up to fate. Trust that things will work out for your child in the end, regardless of where he or she ends up attending college.


Based in San Diego County, California, Carolyn Z. Lawrence is a private college admissions consultant who has helped hundreds of students from across the country find their college matches and their parents survive the college admissions roller coaster. 


© Copyright 2010, All rights reserved. May not be copied or distributed without written permission from Carolyn Z. Lawrence. School counselors: If you'd like to share this article with your students, please contact me and I'll be happy to provide a printable copy.



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