Helping your child choose the right college

Helping your child choose the right college

The rollercoaster ride of applying to college begins

Several years ago, during the fall semester of my eldest son’s senior year in high school, we began the process of applying to colleges. I say we, because as a family we were very excited at the notion of sending our son off to college, and viewed it as a group project. A very important group project, one with an outcome that would likely shape our son’s future, possibly the rest of his life.

I should say at the start that we are a family with several advantages. My husband and I are both college grads and, in addition, I have a master’s degree in creative writing. My husband is an IT executive and surfs the web like nobody’s business. Between the 2 of us, we felt we were well-positioned to help our son navigate this transition, this first, real step towards independence and adulthood.

The role of college guidance counselors

At the time, our son was attending a small, private school. The college guidance counselor knew our son well and spent several hours a week with him, one on one, helping him craft the best possible college essay. An essay that was compelling from the very first line: creative and outside the box. Over time, she helped him curate the perfect list of colleges to apply to, consisting of 2 reach schools, 5 probable, and 2 safeties.

During a workshop for families of graduating seniors, the guidance counselor taught us how to navigate an online college application program. This program was intended to streamline the application process for us and remove any unnecessary stress.

My son and his fellow seniors were also taken on several overnight visits to a variety of schools. They toured campuses and spent the night in dorm rooms with host students. They went on interviews and sat in on classes. They went to campus sporting events, attended plays and ate in dining halls.

Clearly, we were well supported. As parents, we were confident and enthusiastic, certain we knew what we were doing. Our son too was excited and motivated, ready with a list of criteria he felt would land him in the best of all possible places – the school of his dreams.

This was going to be fun.

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Information overload can drastically add to the stress levels

Flash forward to mid-December of my son’s senior year. Things had changed dramatically. The upbeat vibe in our home had undergone a radical transformation. We were now stressed and anxious. Our confidence had taken a serious hit, as we struggled under the weight of too much information and too many anecdotal opinions.

Scouring the vast array of yearly college guides didn’t help. These included “The Princeton Review’s Complete Book of Colleges”; “The Fiske Guide to Colleges“; and the “US News & World Report’s Find the Best Colleges for You.” These guides were all well written and compelling, yet frequently contradicted one another.

The emails we wrote were uncountable, as were the conversations we had with people who were happy to give us their honest opinion.

When we looked through various insider guides to schools, such as “The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges”; “College Confidential – An Insider’s Guide to Success” we were even more confused.

Who to believe? The institutions themselves? The students who attended them? The publishers of independent guide books?

The notes we took were voluminous. The emails we wrote were uncountable, as were the conversations we had with people who were happy to give us their honest opinion. The campus tours we went on, separate from the tours our son had taken with his graduating class, totaled close to 20.

How stress can diminish the excitement of planning for college

The stress weighed heavily on us as a family, but most heavily on our son. He had been prepping for this moment for years. He studied hard for exams, spent hours on homework, and had participated in a whole range of extracurricular activities including all-season sports, theater production and science fairs. He had volunteered and done community service. He did these things not just because they were expected of him – by both our current, overly competitive culture, and what most colleges like to see on a student’s application – but also because he genuinely enjoyed them and saw them as part of what would take him to the next stage in his life. His confidence grew as a result of his accomplishments, as did his self-esteem. And though he had been nervous about leaving home, he had also lit up with excitement as his senior year drew closer, and the college application process finally began.

Sadly, as the stress around finding the perfect school for our son mounted, we saw that initial flame of excitement dim.

Sadly, as the stress around finding the perfect school for our son mounted, we saw that initial flame of excitement dim. It broke our hearts. The college planning sessions staged around the dining room table, once upbeat and lively, had become sullen, often resulting in quarrels or worse, with our son leaving the table, abruptly saying, “Forget it. I don’t even want to go anymore.”

What had we done wrong?

We didn’t know, but we had to find out before it was too late. In addition, our youngest son was a sophomore in high school at the time, and we dreaded a repeat of what we were currently experiencing. So, what to do?

One evening, as our son brooded in his room after an especially challenging experience – where he tried and failed to upload three supplemental essays onto a college application portal that kept crashed every time he hit submit – my husband and I sat staring at each other across the dining room table, aka application central command.

“Let’s take a walk,” my husband said suddenly, standing up, stretching his arms over his head with a groan. “We need to move our bodies and take a look at this whole thing from a distance.”

And so we did. We walked and talked for 2 hours, reviewing a process that we realized had officially begun more than a year earlier, when our son had taken the PSAT exam. Over a year ago, and much of it was a blur.

“You know what’s sad?” I said. “Wherever he ends up going, he’s leaving in just a few months.”

“Right,” my husband said. “As hard as that is to believe.” We were walking slowly now, up a hill, back towards home.

“But so much of this last year has been about sorting through all those options and opinions,” I went on. “All that work, instead of enjoying our time together as a family. Instead of enjoying him.”

It made me want to cry.

“Maybe that is what’s been off about this whole thing,” my husband said, stopping at the edge of our driveway. “Our focus has been on the process, checking things off the master list. Which is important of course,” he said, “there was so much to do. But I think we lost track of the actual point.”

“Which is what?” I said, feeling myself getting irritated. Between the 3 of us, we had covered every possible thing, every step of the way. We hadn’t missed a single deadline, a single letter of recommendation, a single thank you note. “What have we lost track of exactly?”

“We’ve lost track of him,” my husband said. He is the point of all this. It can’t be about what score he gets on the SAT or what school he gets into. It’s got to be about him.”

He was right. I knew it immediately, felt it in my bones. We sat down on the grass in our front yard and began the process of deconstructing. How had it happened?

How did we lose focus on what mattered the most?

Here’s how. In an effort to be good, responsible parents, to help our son steer himself towards the best possible future, we had turned to the experts and the how-to guides, instead of turning to him. No one knew our son better than he knew himself. The experts and guide books were chock full of information, but they were written in a way that made them user friendly, broadly accessible.

Our job was to help our son personalize the experience, fine-tune it to his own needs

Our job was to help our son personalize the experience, fine-tune it to his own needs. To do that meant figuring out what those needs actually were. It occurred to us that we weren’t 100% sure. We knew our son well. We also knew that over time, like most young people, he had been impacted by overarching societal pressure to achieve certain goals, peer pressure to like certain things, and hardest of all to face, parental pressure from us.

We had to admit that consciously or not, with all best intentions, we had been sending our son the message that he was one very lucky young guy, with all kinds of gifts, and that how he did in high school and where he went to college should reflect all of that. Clearly, we had a lot of undoing to do.

Restarting the journey with a focus on the main goal

We began the process by talking to our son, but with a very conscious, very different goal than over the last year and a half. We kept it simple, essentially staying focused on a single question. What makes you happy? What makes you truly, authentically happy?

It took a while for him to answer that question, to let go of what he thought the answer should be, or what we, his friends or college admissions boards might think of his reply. Finally however, we began to get down to the real stuff, the things that got him excited, made him lose track of time in that thrilling, magical way.

To our relief, our son realized that much of what he had been doing over the last few years, the things he had listed on his applications and cv, had in fact given him great joy and satisfaction.

And with that information, we started again. We were lucky to not have to start the process from scratch. To our relief, our son realized that much of what he had been doing over the last few years, the things he had listed on his applications and cv, had in fact given him great joy and satisfaction. He re-worked his college essays to better reflect who he really was, what made him tick.

He also re-examined his college list, and that was where the significant edits happened. Of the 10 schools on the list he replaced 5, in several instances swopping out more prestigious schools for lesser-known ones, keeping his new guiding principles in mind as he made his selections.

  • What makes me authentically happy?
  • What does the future I want to build for myself look like?
  • Does this school and community seem able to support me on my journey, help me realize my personal goals?

We also spent time debunking the myth that there was a perfect fit school waiting for him, reminding him that a) there was no such thing as perfect, and b) that there were in fact several great fit schools out there, as long he was open to a wide array of possibilities. We also reminded him to take a break from the application process, to enjoy his friends, and the final days of senior year.

The joy of restoring family balance

For our part, we agreed to cut way back on the college talk that had been a running dialogue in our house for so long. It had become habitual, so we worked to break the habit. And joy of forgotten joys, we re-instated family movie night. With popcorn and everything.

Ultimately, we tried to impress upon our son that even if he attended a school that didn’t end up being just right in some way, that was okay too, shouldn’t be considered a mistake. The decision was not do-or-die It was part of a process, part of getting to know himself that much better, all part of the journey.

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