The Stress of the College Quest: A Parent / Student Primer

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The Stress of the College Quest: A Parent and Student Primer

By Alison Jaenicke Senior Editor
Article courtesy of, admissions consultancy

If your household contains a college-bound senior, you may feel the ground shifting beneath you. Relations between high-school seniors and their parents can be tricky: here are some tips for surviving as you work together to plan the path to college:

Tips for Students

Tips for Parents

Tips for Students

Understand Your Parents' Emotions Your parents mean well. They really do. They want the best for you. While your senior year is tough for you-with the stresses of college applications piled on top of academic pressure -it's tough for parents as well. Their baby is leaving. Part of them already misses you-part can't wait to shovel all of your possessions into the car. Part of them knows that many great colleges and universities await and that brand names don't matter: part wants a Princeton sticker on the car.

Take Responsibility Don't just groan about your parents running the show. Exhibit gumption. Gather information from your college counseling office, from on-line virtual tours of colleges, from guidebooks and websites. Decide what kind of school you'd like to attend (large or small? public or private?), think about geographic location, and look at stats to see where you might realistically expect to get in. Include your parents in the process (they will likely have a stake, especially if they're chipping in some bucks), but take the initiative. Once you decide where you'll apply, look at the essay questions and see if you'll have to write one general personal statement or several essays. Research personal-essay writing at the website, where you can:

  • Discover the do's and don'ts of writing an application essay,
  • Read sample essays, and
  • Learn tips for improving your writing.
  • Find help in choosing and approaching your recommenders.

Speak for Yourself Your essay can't be your parents' essay. In his book, On Writing the College Application Essay: Secrets of a Former Ivy League Admissions Officer, Harry Bauld points out the dangers of your parents acting as essay guide: "One warning about parents: They may want you to "sell yourself," an approach that is dead wrong. Parents have their uses, but reading your college essay isn't usually one of them. They care too much, and often don't know quite enough." Similarly, Linda Abraham of cautions against seeking input from too many editors. Trying to follow the advice of English teachers and college counselors, as well as friends and parents, can drive you crazy and lead to an essay that doesn't express who you are and what you want to say. Consider an editor, an expert who can help you unearth your topic, establish your voice, write better and better drafts, and prune and polish your writing.

Tips for Parents

Prepare for Stormy Weather I know a mother who drove her daughter from the middle of Pennsylvania to Providence, RI, to visit Brown University earlier this year. When they arrived, the daughter refused to get out of the car. "I don't like the look of Providence: get back on the highway," she said. Perhaps you've experienced similarly baffling behavior from your child. What's a parent to do? Your child is facing a sea change, and at times this prospect turns 18-year-olds back into two-year-olds, complete with tantrums. The prospect of independence exhilarates and frightens. Parents find that some of the same guidelines for dealing with pre-schoolers (for example, offering choices and setting clear limits) also apply to teenagers. Life is hard enough when they've got one foot out the door: add in the high-stakes, all-or-nothing aspect of the college admissions game, and you have lives in tumult.

Play a Supporting Role While it may seem that you need to take charge of the college application process, it's really not your ballgame. In a USA Today article (1/5/03), MIT Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones observes how parents overly involved in the admissions process undermine their children's goals and growth. "Parents write their kids' essays and even attempt to attend their interviews. They make excuses for their child's bad grades and threaten to sue high school personnel who reveal any information perceived to be potentially harmful to their child's chances of admission." As hard as it is to let your child take the lead (and go in directions you don't agree with), it's the best route in the long run. MIT's Jones continues: "Ultimately, when parents dominate in any way through the admissions process, in attracting attention to themselves, they are detracting from the perception that their child is a young, mature adult ready to leave the nest. Parental over-involvement can also rob a child a chance to develop resilience and self-confidence, two key components for a happy life."

Recognize How Things Have Changed The bad news: competition to get into college has stiffened. The good news: lots of schools can provide your son or daughter a top-notch education. If your impressions of colleges are based on what it was like when you applied, brace yourself. It's not uncommon today for students to apply to a dozen schools, and as applications rise, admission rates are dropping at many schools. In a March 2001 Wall Street Journal article entitled "Schools Once Considered Backups Become as Selective as Ivy League," Elizabeth Bernstein produced an index of the new American Ivies and safety schools. She reports that "parents are still in shock seeing their straight-A children rejected by Duke and fighting to get into Furman University." Many parents take rejection harder than their children: you will need to be careful about projecting your desires and disappointments if you want to help your child. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner observes that the obsession with rankings is a sign of the middle- and upper-middle-class urban myth: "That life is a race, that the funnel narrows quickly, and that if you don't get into Harvard or Stanford, you won't have any life chances." The world of colleges and universities is full of gems: your challenge is helping your child find her gem and supporting her choice.

Copyright 2003