The most frightening part of the college admissions process is not the plummeting acceptance rates at our children’s dream schools, or the skyrocketing tuition costs. It’s actually the application process itself, which is wreaking havoc on our teens’ wellbeing. Recent studies show that 50% of private high school students are chronically stressed about applying to college, and I suspect that their public school peers are right there with them – if not even more stressed out since, for them, advice is often even harder to obtain.
Applying to college is an inherently nerve-wracking process. For many students, it is the first time they are taking a risk and putting themselves out there and being evaluated for who they are. We can’t change that part of it and nor should we shy away from it. Our kids need to develop the skills to overcome challenges throughout their lives and the college admissions process is an incredible opportunity for them to learn how to do so.
To make this process healthier, and help your child develop these empowering skills – for both college and life – take the following five steps:
Insist on a Purpose
One of the biggest sources of anxiety for teens and parents in this process is the fear that they need to get into a certain type of school to be successful. Classmates that discuss applying to certain colleges as if it were like going to the mall because everyone else is going, can result in many feeling left behind if they do not apply to the same schools as their peers. Even worse, if classmates are applying to highly selective colleges, it can make a student feel less accomplished than their peers for not applying to them in the first place.
A college education is not a brand name. It is a set of experiences that will provide students with skills and perspective for the rest of their lives. To encourage our kids to think about college as a stepping stone, we should prompt them to think about why they are going to college. If the answer is to become a teacher, nurse, engineer, lawyer, or whatever their goal may be, we can show them that it is doable with effort and pretty much a degree from any college.
Purpose also allows students to focus on the activities and classes that matter the most to them in high school and treat their education as an experiment to see if they enjoy what they think they are interested in. High school and college is about self-discovery – to use every opportunity to develop and test passions.
Action plan: Instead of asking your kids where they want to go to college, ask them why they want to go to college. Follow through with opportunities to test their answers.
Create a Plan
Between tests, classes, sports, music, art classes, community services events, leadership opportunities, normal teen life, and more, it is hard to find the time to accomplish every part of this process. It is terrifying to try to do it all at once right before the application deadline. Families need a plan so they can incrementally tackle each part of the process at the appropriate time and give students the opportunity to excel with every step.
Whether it is determining course sequences to reach necessary classes for specific programs (such as engineering) or setting aside time for SAT/ACT prep, a plan allows everything to fit together to make a strong application.
Action plan: Create a monthly blueprint with easy-to-implement goals to build a compelling application over time and in a low-stress way.
Focus on Quality, not Quantity
Many think that the path to college admissions success lies in joining as many clubs and activities as possible and loading up on as many advanced classes as possible. However, admissions officers seek applicants who are passionate specialists capable of adding value to their campuses; this kind of value is demonstrated by depth and commitment.
What does this approach mean for your child’s mental health and sleep patterns? It means they are free to focus on just what matters to them and to avoid the rat race that comes with over-involvement. This also applies to signing up for numerous honors/AP/IB classes that often come with much more homework than normal, college prep classes. Avoid unnecessary classes that are outside of their intended area of interest.
Action Plan: focus on what inspires your child and ensure they are not overextended, thereby safe-guarding their time to figure out why they are going to college.
Play the Long Game
One of the most common things teens say to parents is “Mom/Dad, you don’t understand, it is different now.” Yes, many colleges are much more selective, but what was true when we applied to college is true today: the path to long-term success does not run through any specific college right out of high school. By focusing on the long-term goal, we can de-emphasize the feeling that life depends on getting into a particular college. It doesn’t.
Success is built incrementally, and by encouraging our kids to focus on where they want to be ten years after high school, rather than the following fall, we can show them how many options they have to achieve their goals. Let’s shift the conversation to where our kids are going, not where they start off.
Action Plan: orient the conversation to the future beyond college to emphasize that anything is possible with a plan.
Prioritize Personal Growth
Yes, grades matter for applying to college. But an obsession with racking up AP classes on a transcript, or getting into [insert highly selective college name here], misses the point of the entire process. The goal is to gain experiences and skills to create a niche in the future. Becoming fluent in a foreign language, an expert in robotics, or creating a beauty vlog, allows students to test the waters of their future, and orient the time they spend to areas that matter to them – which will also set them apart for a future career in international business, engineering, or marketing. Colleges seek classes of diverse interests and passions. Develop skills to highlight yours and along the way gain confidence in a future that is not solely based on a GPA or test scores.
Action plan: create opportunities to shine and gain confidence through building skills so your kid doesn’t feel like a number.
We can inspire our kids to tailor the college admissions process to their long-term success with a plan and purpose. By recognizing that it is just the first of many steps to health and happiness, we can show them how many options they have and inspire them to discover their potential along the way.
Greg Kaplan is a college counselor, the author of Earning Admission, host of the podcast Earning Admission and the founder of Artis – College Admissions, Life, Career. Artis is the first free mobile app that provides customized weekly admissions advice tailored to a student’s goals, interests, and activities that covers the entire admissions process throughout middle and high school. For more information, visit www.artiscollege.com.