The college search can be stressful for families. It’s an emotional time. Kids are excited about going off to college, but underneath they are a little afraid about leaving home and starting a new life. Parents are proud of their child’s accomplishments and prospects, but also have a knot in the stomach (and can be moved to tears, truth be told) when they think too long about the hole in their lives once their baby leaves.
Students may consider the college search an overwhelming task and have trouble getting started. Some are afraid of making a mistake or of not getting into any college. Others see it as too big a project to fit in between homework and other day-to-day obligations. Parents also see the search as a big project and sometimes think their children should be doing more than they are. Parents often urge their kids to get started, only to find their kids doing less, complaining that their parents are nagging. It’s a fine balance to find, and both sides have merit to their views.
It is helpful to remember that it’s your child who will be going to college. It’s the next big step in his or her life. It touches your life in many ways, too, of course, but the person going to college is your child. So the college search is primarily your child’s project. Let your child be the guide. Keep tabs on the process, but don’t nag.
Offer support, reassurance and encouragement. Talk it over. See if your child would like help getting organized or with brainstorming. Be a sounding board more than anything. Don’t write essays or edit them so much that your child’s voice is lost. Don’t submit applications for your child. Don’t say “we’re applying to College X”. Your child is applying, not you. When you take over, you send the message that your child isn’t up to the task.
Start by reading the “College Admissions Guide” and “Paying For College” sections of this website so you’ll have an overview of what’s to come. Talk with your child about how you will pay for college, what your budget is and how much debt you and your child are able to take on. This knowledge can help your child find affordable colleges that are a good fit. Share any other constraints you have, too.
You should also examine your preconceptions and expectations. Some parents dream of bragging that their child is going to a prestigious college. Sometimes that prestigious college is a perfect fit for the child, but often it is not. It’s best not to focus on college rankings to choose a college. The rankings are self-perpetuating and often flawed in how they are determined. It is much better to let your child go through the process of deciding what kind of school is right for him or her. There are many wonderful colleges that regularly send their students on to graduate and professional schools and into great jobs. It is not necessary to go to a prestigious school to be a success in life. What people make of their time in college is much more important than the name of the school, especially if the college is one that really fits their needs.
The highly selective colleges are also extremely difficult to get into. They have many times more qualified applicants than they have spots to fill. They base their choices on their own unknowable needs. If your child decides that a prestigious school would be a good fit, then he or she should apply. It is unreasonable, however, to expect your child to get into one of these highly selective colleges, even if he or she is a perfect applicant. Please don’t put this added stress on your child. If your child gets into a prestigious school, that’s wonderful. But if he or she doesn’t get in, it is not your child’s fault. Counselors consider any school with an admit rate of 30% or less a “reach” school for all students, even the very best qualified. There is nothing your child could have done differently. Be gentle and supportive.
Be realistic in your expectations for your child. Students who have less than stellar test scores and grades do sometimes get into selective colleges. A college may decide that a student is a good match for them, despite his or her lower scores and/or grades. It happens, and there is no harm in trying when the match is good. Nevertheless, don’t expect that your child will be admitted to a school when he or she doesn’t have grades and scores that are in the usual range of students who get in. Make sure your child also applies to schools that are a better academic match. It’s best to spend time doing a great job on the applications to realistic colleges, rather than focusing on schools beyond reach.
Keep in mind, too, that some Lowell students choose not to attend a four-year college immediately after graduation. There are other options that may work well for your son or daughter. Some students take a break from academics and spend a gap year doing something interesting, and then start college the following year more mature and more focused. Others attend a community college, taking advantage of less expensive programs that train students for particular careers and/or prepare them to transfer to a university after two years.
Finally, it is a big help to students when their parents keep calm, encourage them and let them know they are loved throughout the whole college search process. They will get through it, and they will find a college or other program that works for them. Remember that even if it wasn’t the first choice, nearly everyone ends up thinking the college they go to is fabulous, and Lowell students do very well wherever they go.
The Lowell VICCI Center Volunteers
Next Topic: Paying for College