When my husband was in high school, his father asked him, “Are you planning to go to college?” “Yes,” said Mitch. “Good,” responded my father-in-law. The rest was up to Mitch.
That’s often how it was back then. Parents weren’t as involved in the college-application process as they are today. Mitch pored through Barron’s, took tests, toured colleges on his own or with friends, and applied to a few schools that seemed decent fits for one reason or another. And it all worked out.
Times have changed. Colleges have become far more competitive than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Meanwhile, we parents are more involved in our kids’ lives in general than our own parents ever were, and for better or worse, applying to college has become a family affair.
It can be pretty stressful. I’ve been there three times. The key is managing the stress. Breathe, I tell parents. Try not to let external pressures control the process that will work best for you and your student. Not everything has to be done yesterday, although it helps to have a handle on what’s coming. Also important is keeping an open mind about the school your student will eventually attend.
Start by identifying key components of the process, such as touring colleges and universities, narrowing the possibilities to a “will apply” list, assembling applications (platforms like The Common Application streamline this process), and determining how to pay for college. If you’re the parent of a rising senior, you and your student may have addressed some of these pieces already. If you haven’t, summer is a good time to start.
You probably know that college application support is big business. There are counselors and coaches at the ready to provide, at some cost, their expertise in one or more aspects of the process. I’m one of them. I help students brighten and refine their writing for the main essay and supplements most applications call for.
The fact is, there is specialized support for virtually every aspect of the process, from setting up school tours,as I wrote about in an earlier post, to navigating the sports recruiting process, which is often specialized by sport, and figuring out financial aid and how to pay for college. A good place to start on the money question is with the website consumerfinance.gov/paying-for-college. Some financial planners offer paying-for-college workshops to attract customers, including The College Funding Coach, thecollegefundingcoach.org, which has an office in Secaucus, New Jersey, and other locations around the country.
You can hire an independent soup-to-nuts counselor who, for a single price, will guide your student through the entire process, from choosing senior-year classes through writing essays and filling out applications. Or you can hire, on an hourly basis, an a la carte counselor who can help with one or more elements of the process. It’s up to you, your student, and your wallet.
I’ve always felt high school guidance officers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of students they advise. But they play several crucial roles, including writing student recommendations. Note this well: When a student’s guidance counselor invites you to fill out a questionnaire about your child, don’t wait to be asked again. This may be the one and only time your point of view, as subjective as it is, will be taken into account in your student’s application file. Don’t let that opportunity slip by.
Not all support comes at a price. Some school districts offer college advocacy as part of a district-wide effort to address the achievement gap. Montclair’s IMANI is an example. There are tons of online resources as well. The Reddit forum Applying to College is a free resource for college applicants that covers all aspects of the process. One of my favorite contributors to that subreddit is Admissions Mom, a for-hire independent college counselor in her hometown of Houston who contributes her wisdom freely and regularly online. She recently set up a Facebook page worth following. Discuss with your applicant what keeps them up at night. If there’s room in the budget, maybe a few hours with an independent counselor will be clarifying. Some essay and college counseling coaches, like me, offer free talks to attract private customers. Attending one or two of those may demystify some facet of the process well enough for both of you.
In the end, though, it’s your student’s process, not yours. I know it’s hard to stand back — and if your student asks for help, by all means, do. You won’t have too many more opportunities. Each time our household was in the throes of college application season, I reminded myself that, as parent, my main job was to help my high school senior believe that I believed it would all work out.
And I sometimes remembered to breathe.
A version of this post appeared in my "College Bound” column in Montclair Local.
Photo courtesy Unsplash photographer Fabian Moller.