Five Tips to Survive Your Child’s College Application Process

by Bobbie Batley from the AAML August Newsletter

Hi there!  I am writing this in the midst of a weekend of shopping for dorm supplies for my oldest daughter, Kali.  She will be leaving New Mexico to attend Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas in just a few weeks.  I could not decide what to write about and she suggested this topic.  We survived the college application process…now on to the next adventure!

1. Remember that you have already been to college – It is like some kind of amnesia designed to create discontent between parents and their almost adult children that during the college application process we parents fail to remember how annoyed we felt at our own parents when we were applying to college.  We raise our children saying that we are going to do something “different” or “better” than our parents did and then we fall right back in the same traps.  Unless you have been a college admissions officer or your spouse happens to be, it is likely that you do not know as much about it as the person at your child’s school or a private college counselor that is hired to assist them in this process.  Thus, remember that your points may be given more attention when you have done some of your own research and are working with, instead of against, people who do this as a living.  Try to resist the urge to suggest only colleges that you yourself would have liked to apply to, or colleges with names that you would be proud to tell people about.   Also, even though you always felt like the perfect school for your offspring is your alma mater, the more you say that the less it may happen.  Have some faith in your child (you did raise them for goodness sake) and let them explore options without you putting in your two cents about every one of them.  Also, remember that the cool mail from Harvard was not sent only to your child, they print like 40,000 or so of those things.
2. Your child may get mad when you add schools to their list, but mine chose the one I added, so do it anyway – Having said that you should let your child explore options, also remember that you have watched them grow into this adult child standing in front of you for the last 17 or 18 years.  Much like a good girlfriend can tell you, “yes, those pants really do make your butt look fat,” you probably have a decent understanding of what makes your child tick.  If you have listened as they walk through the door at the end of the day and tell you what they hate/love/are ambivalent about in their education, then you probably have some idea about their passions and their educational needs.  As a very young child, it was apparent mine did not do well in class if she could not express her opinions and have some personal relationship with the teacher.  We were fortunate to find a middle school/high school that encouraged those things and she excelled there.  When she first started saying that she wanted a big university with some anonymity in her junior year of high school, we took her to see multiple large state schools happy that she would have a true “college experience”.  It was clear she was struggling with really committing to that kind of change so we kept looking.  We learned it really is about the match and not the name of the school and that there is not one true perfect school.  Several schools we found would have been great fits for her; however, it really was the one that this Mama liked that she finally chose…they also have housekeeping in the dorm rooms and walk in closets, so that may have sealed the deal!
3. Talk about finances early and openly – I was raised in a household where talking about money just did not occur as it was dirty or distasteful.  It was clear we had enough, which was more than some and less than others.  Most of our children today are being raised with more than we had growing up and have been exposed to a world of immediate gratification, credit and payment plans.  It is likely your child really has no idea what it means when they tell you that annual tuition at the only university they think will work for them is $70,000 before room and board and then act surprised when your eyes bug out of your head.  If you are like many parents of our generation, you have just made the money work or you have worked more to give your kids what you think they “need”.  Now, for the first time you are saying words like “budget” and asking about scholarships and merit aid.  It is stressful for both of you.  You seem like a new person to them and they seem like an ungrateful money hungry animal to you.  This really is an area where you need to be clear about each other’s expectations to decrease the number of misunderstandings.  These conversations also need to be had early so that you are not pulling the rug out from under your child the day before they need to make a decision (which by the way is May 1st).  Also, this is very much an area that you cannot discuss with most people.  Sometimes those that have the most modest lifestyle in your friend group are the ones that have saved $500,000 for each of their children for school, while those that seem to have it all are living on borrowed money.  Further, if your Greek chorus is not in the active application phase, they have no idea how much college really costs so will seem aghast at even the reasonably priced schools.  In addition, there are all kinds of myths associated with college cost and paying for it.  Many parents have heard that if a school really wants your child, the school will make it possible for them to attend there.  Certainly there are those cases, but your child also must be an incredible standout with very little resources for that to happen.  Those schools do not chose to pick one decently achieving child from a middle to higher income family and just make their college dreams come true by giving them a four year, full ride tuition package.  Make sure that your “short list” includes options that are affordable and may include some aid so that if the big name school with alleged money to burn does not come knocking that your Plan B does not feel like a letdown to you and your child.
4. Develop a plan for the application process with your child early on – This includes such mundane things as keeping a calendar, filling out the darn FAFSA and CSS early and deciding who is responsible for what parts of the process.  In many cases we saw, the parents really were driving the train in regard to time-sensitive areas, such as ACT/SAT testing and application deadlines etc., which may be a good idea so that no irreparable harm is done.  However, I would also encourage you to let your child take the lead on this a bit.  Yes, your precious child is busy and overwhelmed with their senior year activities, but if this college thing is really important to them, they will figure out how to put some dates on a calendar and stick to them.  Side note – important life skill to have!  It was shocking to me how many parents were overwhelmed with stress when an application was due.  It really is the child’s application and not yours.  The schools are professionals at this and they know that those essays are supposed to be personal, not perfect!  Also, your child may know things you do not if you let them lead a bit.  My daughter chose to do as many applications as she could for “early admission”.  This is not early decision (which is a legally binding commitment to attend just that school).  It is not something I would have encouraged her to do, as it really drew out the process; however, she felt that she wanted as much time as possible before May 1st (that really is the national decision deadline) with as much information as possible to make a decision.  She knew by late January that she had been accepted at all the schools she had applied to with early admission.  And try to have some fun with the application process.  Planning college visit trips and learning about other communities together is a great experience for some bonding before your child ventures out into the world on their own.  It also gives you some insight into what they do and don’t like so you can add to or take away from the list.  Oh, and the list, think 7-8 schools and hopefully no more than 10.  Plan on some likely, some possible and some reach schools.  One likely school and 7 reach schools makes for many disappointing return trips from the mailbox (or email box).
5. Drink wine, it is cheaper than therapy (and tuition!) – Like a good wine (see Michael Mosberg’s tips from last month to choose one), some things are meant to be savored.  It sounds a little crazy considering how traumatizing the whole college application experience can be, but try to be present and linger in the moment.  Plus, maybe if you are sipping a great cabernet, you are not going to say something hasty that will cause your child to storm off in a huff to their room.  You and your child are stronger than you think.  They are testing you, just like they did when they were learning to walk.  How far is Mama going to let me go before she reels me in?  Just keep in mind that you are going to feel anxious and so are they.  You will want them to understand your perspective and they will want you to understand theirs.  Do the best you can.  You are both going to say and do things you will regret.  Teach them the value of the words, “I said hurtful things to you and I am sorry for that. Can we try again?”  Giving yourself space to have overwhelming emotions is important….and if you need that space so do they.  Transitions are filled with challenge and anxiety, but most importantly they are filled with opportunity.  Both you and your child have done a pretty darn good job or you would not even be going through this stressful college application process.  This really is an exciting time, so sip and savor, as before you know it the whole thing will be over and they will be packing to head out on this adventure and you will be overwhelmed by the next set of emotions.

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