For students nearing the end of high school, now is an anxious time. Many are receiving good and not-so-good news from colleges, while others will wait a while longer. Either way, emotions are running high, and just when seniors should be savoring and celebrating the culmination of high school, they are unsettled by the question, What’s next?
In a perfect world, our kids sail through these days understanding that filling a college class is a numbers game and that most colleges don’t have room to accept every qualified applicant. In a perfect world, our kids possess the confidence to believe that, whatever a college’s decision, everything will work out; that even if they are overlooked by the very university they’ve dreamt of attending, they have within them the power to thrive somewhere else. In a perfect world.
At least our imperfect world offers support for these tense times. Montclair-based life and health coach Lisa Rosenthal (www.LDRHealing.com) meets regularly with stressed-out students. Rosenthal, who specializes in coaching young adults, recalls one high school senior who was rejected by her first-choice, an Ivy League university. “She had pegged her self-worth on acceptance from this one school, and when she was rejected, she said and believed she was a failure, ” Rosenthal told me.
Rosenthal advises parents that helping a student through deep disappointment involves introducing them to the radical-seeming idea that they have many other options. “Someone locked into disappointment is not seeing the larger picture,” Rosenthal explained. “I help students change their outlook, to stop looking at that one event—rejection—and instead take a bird’s eye view. Often a disappointment in one area of life opens the door to something bigger and better.” That “something bigger” could even be a gap year, when a student can explore their passions, gain valuable experience, and re-apply to the same or different schools a year later.
“Rejection is difficult to swallow, especially for students who are used to success,” Rosenthal said. ”Parents should try to help their kids realize how much control they have over their own lives and their future. In my experience, there is often great value in the ‘road less traveled’ and the opportunities at other universities may offer more than a student has imagined. This openness to other ideas is a type of self-care most students don’t think about, but it’s vital to their self-esteem.”
There are other ways seniors can relieve some of the waiting-game pressure. Physical activity, changes of scene, and helping others are well documented as useful tools for gaining fresh perspectives. How about encouraging your teenager to organize an at-home spa weekend with friends or to start training for a May 10K? Students with extra time can tutor, such as with Succeed2gether (succeed2gether.org), or coach sports to children with special needs through local programs like TopSoccer (www.montclairsoccer.com/Default.aspx?tabid=91651).
And what of those students who are accepted at one or more of their top choice schools? First, congratulations! Their joy and exhilaration are well-deserved and understandable, and their good fortune is cause for celebration. Second, hold that thought. Before blasting their college acceptances across social media, I hope those students will consider the feelings of friends and acquaintances who are processing disappointment or who haven’t yet received their notifications. It may go unspoken, but classmates will appreciate those gestures that show respect for others’ circumstances.
Meanwhile, as parents, our job is to be caretakers and healthy role models. When we see our students struggle with the college frenzy, life coach Rosenthal advises, consider a moratorium on social media, plan a getaway to the city or a nearby museum—look for ways to shift their attention to something utterly different. And if you feel it’s necessary, explore talking with a third party—a young adult coach or counselor, for instance. Most importantly, remain positive and neutral. Sharing our fears and disappointments with our children only adds to the pressure they are almost certainly experiencing. After all, the college application process is not about us. It’s about our children learning to make their way in the world.
A version of this post appeared in Pat Berry’s "College Bound” column in Montclair Local newspaper on March 22, 2018.