The Crabby Counselor Talks to Parents

Dear Moms and Dads,

The college application season is upon us and I wanted to offer a few tips to keep things on an even keel between you and your sons and daughters as the process wears on. I speak to you with the benefit of many years as a high school teacher, college admission officer, and college counselor, so pay attention. I’m not writing this for my health!

First, put down the college catalogues and step away from the table. If you’re doing research for your child, stop now and turn the job over to him or her. This is a great moment for high schoolers to test the waters of adulthood as they consider their first big life decision. They should have the responsibility of deciding what they’d like to study and where they’d like to study it. Your job is to offer counsel and supportive reactions along with guidance, but not to run the process. Especially do not call colleges to make appointments for your child or talk about him or her. Very helicoptery and pushy. Let your child come to you with ideas and really listen to them, and let him or her make the calls for information or scheduling. Offer your reactions and ask questions that will elicit further information such as “Tell me more about…” or “What got you interested in…?” Even if you think you know the answer, hold your tongue; you’ll be surprised!

Second, if your child’s high school has an experienced college counselor, for God’s sake try to assume that he or she knows something about the field. Many parents seem to think that college counselors are there just to thwart ambitions, talk aimlessly, or make trouble. They’re not! They would sincerely like to see your child get what he or she wants. However, remember that counselors have to deal with facts as well as ambitions, so no matter how hard a student wants to go to Elysian U., grades or scores or a lengthy rap sheet may squelch the most ardent desire. Also, try not to expose your dependence on rumor and gossip. Don’t assume that because Suzy Q. got into Shangrila College last year your daughter is a shoo-in because they have the same profile. You don’t really know that, and this year is different from last year. Trust that your counselor knows the real situation, which is colored by many factors apart from any individual’s statistics. You may hear some things you don’t want to hear; try not to take them personally and remember that the counselor is your and your child’s ally.

Test prep is worthless, so don’t put your kid through it for the sake of a few points on the ACT or SAT. If he or she would like to take it again, fine, but twice is plenty. Shelling out hundreds of bucks for weeks of agonizingly dull and pointless “strategy” sessions and blank-filling exercises will just turn your child into a seething bundle of resentment (especially if it takes place in the summer). The major test prep companies “guarantee” improvement in scores but as far as I know no independent analysis has been done to support those claims, and if you think a kid is going to go from a 19 ACT to a 31 I have a Nigerian prince with $135,000 who’d like to talk to you. Test prep isn’t learning, it’s labor that dulls the knife. Your kid is better off going to the library, theater, or working, whether at a lab or a real job. Honest.

Taking the college trip can be fun or agonizing. Tilt toward fun by letting your applicant-to-be plan the itinerary and arrange the times for tours, information sessions, and interviews (if required). Remember that you’re watching your child take charge and take initiative, which are qualities colleges like to see in prospective students. You might be amazed at how this goes, especially if you’ve also supported his or her college choices all along. And once you’re there, hang back–don’t ask all the questions of the admission officer, and especially don’t brag about your kid in front of everyone. If you can, take a tour separate from your child, or opt out and wander around campus by yourselves, then meet later to discuss your impressions. Remind yourselves to respect your child’s observations and opinions, while seasoning them with grownup views where necessary. (College isn’t only about the hot chicks/guys or dining hall food!)

When application time rolls around, a hands-off approach is also best. Think about the satisfaction we get from doing things ourselves and that your child is taking responsibility for a major life step. Then take a deep breath. Exhale. Ask about deadlines and write them on a kitchen calendar. Avoid asking about progress as long as you can. Remember that you’re not going to college, your child is. Watch the “Leave it to Beaver” episode where Wally is going on his first date and June frets about how things will go. Ward tells her that they’ve done their parenting job and need to trust that Wally’s learned from them. Watch it again.

But what about the essays? I know, you just want to put some finishing touches on them. Well, don’t. If your child offers them to you for a critique, go for it, but lay off the grammar cop routine. Ask yourself if the essay sounds like your kid. If not, why not? Do you see words that he or she normally doesn’t use, like “plethora”? (A word I’m convinced is used only in college essays, and I’ve read thousands of ’em.) Does the writer sound constipated? Offer your reactions then leave it. The essayist can and should ask a teacher to look it over but again, only lightly. Too smoothed-out and it clearly is no longer the writer’s work. And yes, admission officers notice.

OK, you say. What if my kid avoids the college process? What if there’s no activity in the summer or even into first semester senior year? First, don’t force it. See if you can find out why there’s no action. Maybe he’s (it’s more often boys than girls) worried about leaving home or what the future holds. Some quiet discussion about that can go a long way. Avoiding the college process is nearly always a symptom of something else. If you can find that out, things usually fall into place.

Well, what if they don’t fall into place right away? The furor you read about in the papers most often centers on things like Early Decision and similar policies. But many, many colleges have December 31 deadlines and some are even later than that. If a college has a specific deadline, it doesn’t matter whether a student applies six weeks or six minutes early. You may be white-knuckling it until then but you’ll save a lot of coronary wear and tear if you leave it up to your recalcitrant applicant when to sile. And with most colleges now offering online applications, it’s not that hard to get something in at the last minute. Of course, you might emphasize the pleasure of getting applications finished so he doesn’t ahve to worry about them, but that doesn’t always register.

Finally, I just want to say that a lot of the so-called “stress” of college application season is largely illusory–it’s only stressful because we make it so. We read in the paper that it’s stressful, so we think it must be. No. The process hits all the pressure points of relationships the way a family dinner at Thanksgiving does, but it will be gotten through. (Why do you think so many plays and movies revolve around holidays, funerals, and birthdays?) Going into it with that awareness will make life a lot easier–there will be some conflict, there will be some stress. So take a Zen-like approach and live moment to moment. Above all, enjoy the fact that your offspring is unfolding to the world and you had the largest hand in making that happen.

4 thoughts on “The Crabby Counselor Talks to Parents

  1. Will-
    Are these archived anywhere? We are not applying to schools yet, but our oldest is in 11th grade this fall, and we have to think about these things now—it’s rather scary and your posts are great.


  2. This made me laugh out loud! I wish I could give it to ‘my’ parents, but it’s too sarcastic. Are you willing to write a parent-friendly version??


    • Hi Katie– Glad you got a kick out of it. I could and have written “parent-friendly” versions but no one seems to pay attention to those! I’ll poke around in my files and see if I can find the “official” tip sheet.


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