Holiday decorations have been put away, you're trying to keep up with your New Year's resolutions, and that fruitcake has been re-gifted. It's time to think about gearing up for the college process with your high school junior! When I first started college counseling, I assumed it was mostly a matter of matching students to colleges, with parents playing a primary but mostly supportive role. Coming from the college side of admission, which was usually remote from family dynamics, I had yet to see that the process exerts its influence on nearly every aspect of family life, often stressing hidden fault lines.
Over the years, I've had parents demand that their student apply to their alma maters despite his or her own preferences; divorced parents nearly coming to blows over their child's college choices (with him in the room); parents in tears because their child didn't get into a favored institution; parents clueless about their children's interests or goals; parents refusing to pay except for certain schools ("If he doesn't go to Harvard, he'll be a bum!"); and parents talking about how "we" were going to apply to the following schools.
I've had plenty of great parents, as well. They supported their children's choices; had had great family conversations; and were prepared to do what was needed as time went on. That being said, it takes a lot of self-restraint to enter this phase of your child's life. He or she is coming into adulthood but still depends on parental support; is expected to make a huge personal decision but based on family conditions; and looks forward to independence but may not have the tools to use it wisely.
I ultimately concluded there are no villains in the college process, only decent people trying to navigate a complex system while balancing the family's needs. Whether it's your first time or the latest of several, here are some suggestions that may help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls as the process heats up.
1. Expect complications. There's no getting around it--you will run into problems, whether it's with choices, goals, or finances. You won't even realize it until you're approaching one, either. Expecting the unexpected enables you to face the issues more openly. See them as challenges or puzzles. It's the moment to take a deep breath, remind yourself that you've reared a great kid, and dive into the topic.
2. Become a mentor as much as a parent. This is the moment you can begin to step back from your authoritative role to become a mentor, "guiding without steering." Instead of telling your student what to do, you start asking open-ended and non-directive questions like, "Tell me why you like that college?" or "How do you think that major will help you in the future?" Finding a good balance here can be difficult if you're used to being more directive, but you'll be surprised how positive transferring responsibility while offering help when needed can be.
3. Keep your own anxieties at bay. You fear your child will make mistakes, never get into college or not take the process seriously. And you may be right. But allowing your own worries to dominate your interactions about college only makes things worse. You'll encounter resistance, avoidance or more anxiety. Share your own anxieties with your spouse but be as cool as possible with your child. When you feel like yelling about getting to work on research or applications, step back instead. Gritting your teeth is tough on the molars, but pays off well in the future.
4. Talk about hopes and goals, not just colleges. Have this conversation first. Sit down now and talk about your hopes for your student, then let him or her respond. See your child through new eyes, as a young adult. Talk about aspirations and anxieties; focus on them before trying to choose institutions. Above all, value and respect what your child tells you, even if it seems to contradict what you expected to hear. Bonus hint: Try having these conversations while shoveling snow, making dinner, watching TV or driving to the store. The less formal the better.)
5. Present a unified front. Whether you're married or divorced, be on the same page about your approach to college. Agree about finances and other issues before you sit down with your student. Arguing about them, especially with him or her in the room, can be devastating, not just to the process, but to family relationships.
6. Listen to your school's counselor, not your neighbors. If your school has a college counselor, be sure to take advantage of that resource. He or she (or they) provide good up to date information about deadlines, institutions, and financial aid. You'll have friends and relatives tell you how their children got into college and what you should do, but consider the small sample size as well as the fact that college admission changes from year to year. Above all, don't fall into the "Keeping up with the Joneses" trap by having your student to apply to high status schools just for bragging rights.
7. Expect your student to accept others' advice he or she wouldn't take from you. Parents are often frustrated that they'd said exactly the same thing I had but were ignored while my advice was treated like the Ten Commandments. It's a normal part of adolescent development to begin relying on others; it's not a sign of disrespect. And you can be secretly happy that you were right all along. I found as a college counselor that I could help defuse situations where parents and students disagreed or where they weren't hearing each other because I was perceived as a disinterested observer.
8. Educate yourself about the college process. Don't rely on your own experience or even that of recent graduates. As I've discussed in other entires, the process shifts constantly and subtly. Attend college nights at school and do your own research online at credible sites like Big Future or Peterson's. Although the Common Application doesn't include every institution, it has about 800 members and plenty of relevant information about how to apply. Colleges' own sites are informative. If the high school uses a college platform like Naviance, be sure to sign up and use it when invited.
9. High school still matters. Don't permit the college research and application process to overwhelm your student's high school life, in class or out. It should not be a full-time job. The best preparation for college is great performance in high school. In class or out, focusing on doing well today helps ensure college acceptance and a more fulfilled life. Focus on the journey, not the result.
10. Don't nag. I saved this hint for last because it's toughest. As adults we are more long term, future-oriented than our kids. To avoid this situation, set up a calendar in an open area and agree on deadlines and goals with your child. If he or she is part of the process from the beginning, those deadlines are more likely to be met.
Prepare yourselves for a wild ride testing your relationships with each other, with your children, and with the high school. It may not be fun, but it can be a valuable experience. Attending to the journey will make the goal that much easier to achieve.