Millions of high school seniors are eagerly awaiting the end of the long and grueling college admissions process, with the final April 1st deadline for acceptance or rejection by schools fast approaching. It’s not just an emotionally fraught time for the applicants, but for their parents too. How to get through it is the subject of this post, by Linda Fleming McGhee, a clinical psychologist practicing in Chevy Chase, Maryland
By Linda McGhee
As final admissions decisions from colleges start to roll in, it seems like an appropriate time to address the emotional impact of the college process — not on the kids but on their parents.
Discussions about parent involvement in college admissions typically center around how parents should guide their child through the process, and articles often center on application “to do” lists, information about standardized testing, scheduling, and time management. But let’s focus on something different — the psychological well-being of parents as their children continue the separation process and move through college selection.
The college process is a part of the long goodbye that parents experience with their children. Human have the longest lead time between childhood and separation from parents, a decidedly mixed blessing. We have time to bring our children to maturity (or hopefully, some proximity thereto) — but it comes at a cost. We are so deeply attached to our children that separation is an emotionally– wrenching experience. Love for children makes the last months of high school a bittersweet time for parents: we are excited about our children moving off to college, but sad to see them go. Parents invest a lot of time, energy and resources into their children. They want the best for them, want them to achieve great things, and to become successful adults. It is in this emotional transition from child at home to adult that the college process takes place.
While it is understood that parents are going through their own set of emotional turmoil during the process, parents must think through the forces that guide them as individuals and realize that their emotions are separate and distinct from the feelings of their children. As the past is a prelude to the present, parents bring their own experiences in life into the college process, including their thoughts and feelings about their own educational and career paths. So too, as the child grows and becomes a young adult, he or she brings into the college process their own desires, character traits, hopes and talents.
Often, the psychological orientation around the college decision does not mesh well inter-generationally. The feelings of a parent who grew up in Iowa in the 1980s may not dovetail well with the feelings of a child growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2014. It is important for parents to understand that their experiences are important, but that they should not predominate over their child’s experience. Short version to parents: It’s about them and not you (at least, not exclusively). An added benefit of understanding yourself and your child as distinct, but equally valuable beings, is that it helps you to see the child in front of you more clearly, as opposed to the child in your dreams. That way, you can help your child figure out what unique talents and abilities they bring to the table, and how to use the college process to best capitalize on these strengths.
The world of college admissions has changed since parents were young adults. The number of freshman slots at elite colleges has remained about the same, but the number of applications have gone up by quantum leaps. Due to many factors, including the universal application process, the number of people applying to top colleges and universities has skyrocketed. An oft-told joke is that alumni over a certain age would not be accepted into their own college if they applied today. One example of the application boom is Case Western University, which recently indicated that the number of applications has increased 200 percent from 2007-2013. That’s an increase from 7,000 to 21,000 applications in seven years.
So, a realistic worldview of your child’s abilities and strengths as matched against the current competitive environment is essential. But amongst the talk of competitiveness and the stress parents face in this process, there is good news. First, there are many fine colleges and universities out there, even those not ranked at the top by a rating body. Most are not competitive in their admissions. Moreover, most teenagers get into a college that is among their top choices. Researching acceptance statistics using tools, such as the school’s Common Data Set and Naviance, will help parents work to shape a process that works best for the child. Arm yourself with facts, temper expectations and help your child to create a realistic college list. Your child’s college counselor can often be a useful sounding board in this regard.
Another key piece of advice in maintaining sanity and perspective in this process is to surround yourselves by parents, friends and family who are also trying to navigate senior year constructively and without undue added stress. It’s probably not prudent to speak daily with the relatives and friends who believe that all of life’s problems will be solved and dreams fulfilled if your child is accepted into X University. Also, you might want to steer clear of some high school events where the buzz is all about who is applying to where — or who got into where.
Our quest to seek what is the best for our children is sometime conflated in the parent’s mind with the notion that the best-ranked school is the absolute key to success. Thus, wanting the best is sometimes emotionally intertwined with X University. Emotional over-attachment to any one school (or elite group of schools) is sometimes not healthy or prudent. The notion that one school will lead your child to (fill in the blank) — nirvana, wealth, life-long happiness, and the right connections — flies in the face of what we know to be true as adults. Success (by whatever yardstick) is multi-determined and is rarely based solely on one factor, i.e. admission to X University. Your child’s grit, determination, work ethic, resilience, adaptability, character, good health, and alas, serendipity and the winds of fortune, all play important roles in a person’s life. We all know well-adjusted and maladaptive individuals from all walks of life, including those who went to elite institutions, non-elite universities and those who never attended college. Focus on finding a good college fit for your child and your family.
When acceptances or rejections roll in, please be sure to remember the old adage “if you have nothing good to say, say nothing.” This is particularly helpful when you feel compelled to comment on someone else’s child with negativity or blame your child’s rejection on someone else getting in who is “less qualified.” Parents usually blame the “other” group of people (you name it, racial or ethnic minorities, legacies, the wealthy, athletes; you get the drift).
Typically these conversations take place in the heat of rejection but often take place among parents when discussing why things are so competitive. Often these discussions or not helpful for several reasons. First, the statement that X got into a school when they were less qualified than Y because they’re (fill in the blank) is often not based upon facts. It’s based upon supposition. The “other” is often highly qualified (with high GPAs and test scores) and can successfully matriculate from the college that accepts them. To imply that the “other” is always less qualified is unfair, untrue and might reflect underlying bias.
Moreover, people are accepted to college, not scores. Colleges often look to the total person, including their background, school or geographic location. In addition, some high school students are more than the sum of their GPA and test score parts. There are clearly outstanding individuals out there who are strong leaders, have charismatic personalities, and have unique talents and intangible strengths that they bring to the college, even if they did not get perfect SAT scores. Colleges want to see a variety of different types of individuals in the make-up their freshman classes, and this selection process is unlikely to change.
Making statements on other children’s qualifications relative to your own is often simply ungracious and best left unsaid. It also sends a message to your children that their setbacks are always blamable on someone else, which is not a good precedent to set. Sometimes in life, you get accepted, sometimes rejected. And that is true of people from all groups. That all being said, if your child should be rejected to a school, it’s okay to be disappointed. That’s normal part of the process. Take a couple of days to be sad about it. But when speaking with others, swallow disappointment, attempt to be gracious, and in the heat of the moment, don’t give voice to negativity and disparage other groups of people.
It is entirely appropriate to celebrate your child’s acceptances and, as a family, share the news as you see fit. Celebrate your child’s victories fully. Peak moments don’t often come to pass and should be treasured. But, be mindful of the feelings of others who may not have the news they expected or desired. In addition, refrain from denigrating the college choices of other children. I have run across parents who were quite upset when other parents denigrated their child’s choice of college. As highlighted above, the college-picking experience is fraught with emotion and is connected to the teenager’s separation from the family. This decision-making process also often takes in to consideration family size, economics, rightness of fit and the applicant’s unique needs. The final college pick should reflect these family dynamics. It is best when parents are respectful of other parents’ struggle to arrive at this difficult decision.
A crucial key to navigating your child’s last year of high school and the college process is for parents to take care of themselves, physically and emotionally. Too often, the entire focus is on the teenage child and often parents neglect themselves in the process. So, get some sleep. Eat and exercise properly. When the tension gets too high, try taking a break from college applications. Make a pledge to have discussions free from talking about college. Make a game of it. If someone errs and mentions the “c” word, have them pay for dinner or donate to a charity of your choice. Finally, it may be your child’s last year in the home. Spend some time with him or her doing the all the things you enjoy, making sure to celebrate family traditions. Enjoy the last few months of high school and celebrate the end of a long journey and the beginning of new ones.