The college bribery scandal struck a collective nerve, swirling up anxieties of parents and teens already overwhelmed by the daunting application process.
Where I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC in the 80s and 90s, college stickers adorned the rear windows of Volvo station wagons, conspicuous reminders of a family’s admissions success. Today, the sweatshirt has joined the bumper sticker or the license plate frame as a symbol of success. Each successive generation faces swelling applicant pools and shrinking acceptance rates, fueling the hysteria and hype surrounding undergraduate admission.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with showing loyalty to our undergraduate experiences, this scandal revealed an uncomfortable truth about the unintended message we might be sending our teens: they are only as good as their college sweatshirt.
As parents, we want the best for our children. We want them to have access to resources and opportunities we never had. But, when our own wishes and “what ifs” cloud our expectations for their future, we lose sight of a crucial and beautiful piece of the college application process.
When done right, applying to colleges and universities is a journey of self-discovery, and an important first step in a child’s transition to adulthood. How can we as parents support our children AND create space for them to think deeply about who they are, in this moment in time?
As a former admissions officer and reformed Type A overachiever now devoted to teaching meditation and mindfulness, I offer a few tips about how to navigate this journey with your child.
1) Let go of your expectations. Your child’s college experience is not yours. I encourage each of you to close your eyes and think about your undergraduate life. Independence. Friendship. Freedom. Regrets. Sadness. Happiness. The thrill of adulthood. The wishes. The what ifs. The mistakes. The triumphs. Sit with any and all of these and allow yourself space to process. When you open your eyes again, having filtered out your own experience, see your child’s journey as his or her own. You might discover that sharing your experiences opens communication with your teen so they in turn are comfortable sharing their expectations, wishes, hopes and fears with you.
2) Let go of your children, who are alternately excited and petrified about leaving the nest and heading out on their own. This is the moment we parents dread and prepare our lives for, when our sons and daughters flap their wings and head out into the great big world. The college application process is integral to this process. Remind them to “trust their gut,” they will know when a campus feels right, even when it’s not the campus you envisioned for them. Walk with them step by step as they sign up for classes and standardized tests, be willing to brainstorm essay ideas with them, but don’t DO for them. If you do the work for them, you rob them of an opportunity to think deeply about who they are – yes, they’ll panic. Yes, they may scream and cry and say they don’t know who they are or what they love to do or study. Sit them in a comfortable space without their phones (music is okay to set the mood) and let them write about themselves, even if it what comes out at first seems like gibberish. There is always a story. Each of us has one, we just have to take the time to find it.
3) Accept the moment, and the outcome, no matter what. From the “Yes” that arrives in an email to the shattering “No” that seems insurmountable in the moment. Most likely, the college process will run the gauntlet of human emotion. Along with elation, anticipation, excitement, and joy, your son or daughter will experience doubt, insecurity, outright rejection, jealousy, anger, and frustration, to name a few. Name each when it arises, and without judgment accept that these are all natural human emotions, especially during the application process.
4) As D-Day (the May 1st deadline for enrollment commitments) approaches, listen hard. And listen without judgment. Trust your children to make this decision, trust yourself that you have the strength to support them through it all. Trust that they will end up in the right place. So much of the college experience is what one makes of it – a person can be miserable at his or her dream school if he or she chooses not to engage. Your child’s backup or safety school may be the best place he or she could have possibly ended up. Encourage your children to explore each option, to close their eyes and imagine themselves on campus and ask them what feels right.
What matters most is that your child finds a new nest in which he or she feels safe, supported, and challenged to spread his or her wings. What is right for your child is right for your child, and it is our job as parents to encourage the fit rather than the name on the sweatshirt. The road to adulthood will have its twists and turns, and when we embrace the journey, even when and especially when it is challenging, our children move forward with the strength and resilience they will need, in college and beyond.
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