College Acceptance and Rejection: What Parents Can Do To Help

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For high school seniors, and we parents, April is, as T.S. Eliot wrote, the cruelest month: the time when 17 and 18 year olds find out whether or not they’ve been accepted into college. The news doesn’t come via a fat or thin envelope in your mail slot anymore; now it’s delivered via a click of a computer or iPhone.

But the news is no less fraught with tension and great expectations.

Now, before we start debating the merits of Yale, Duke or Stanford, it’s important to remember that 60% of 18 to 24 year olds in the United States don’t go to college at all.

So if you or your high school senior are bemoaning the college application process, it’s important to remember that anyone suffering through the Common App and the possibility of rejection is, actually, among the fortunate few.

But the problems are real. How do you “encourage” your child to shoot for the best possible school? How do you prepare them for potential rejection? What resources are available to help kids navigate this path? What if your child gets her heart set on a school you think is wrong for her, or one that will be hard for your family to afford? How can parents and other family members support a teenager grappling with this very public, high-pressure process?

Part of the problem here is timing. For many families, the college application process strains an already turbulent parent-teen relationship at a vulnerable time – right before both parties are getting ready to face the major milestone of a child leaving home. Another part is psychological – separating what you want for your child from what they want for themselves.

There is a lot that parents can do to minimize the trauma inflicted on teenagers, who are often too young to cope with the stress, pressure, excess and random cruelty of today’s college application process.

The keys here are two underrated life (and parenting) skills: strategic avoidance and strategic interference. Like so much of parenthood, this phase is more art than science. Much depends on the personality of your particular child.

Part a parent’s job here is to shield kids from pressure, not increase it. For kids applying to college, much of senior year is pressure-filled. April marks the pinnacle, when it seems to some seniors that everyone but you may be getting fantastic Who-Got-In-Where news. “Well, Annie found out she got into Yale today.” Or “Spenser found out he got into Georgia Tech today.”

Some days, it seems, impossibly, like every kid who has applied to a prestigious college has indeed gotten in that very day.

Which is fine unless you are one of those kids who didn’t.

Heartbroken kids don’t talk so much about their bad news. It’s our job as parents to prepare children for the possibility that they may not get their first choice acceptance – and that that disappointment is survivable. Try to get your child to avoid an obsession with one particular school, since acceptance anywhere is impossible to guarantee. Talk about how you dealt with rejection as a teenager or even more recently. Emphasize that learning to overcome what feels like failure is a critical life skill – far more important than getting into one particular school.

For many parents, particularly those of us prone to helicoptering, the key to supporting your child’s college application process is simple but hard: stay out of it.

My first child, the only one old enough to apply to college, refused to let me have anything to do with his college applications. Part of the problem is that I went to Harvard. Along with about 37 relatives, dating back to my grandparents, who were class of ’29. So the family tradition, shall we say, is strong. My son would have been a fourth generation legacy. Which I tried to explain to him was close to priceless in today’s college market. But he wanted something different – a school with strong academics where he could follow his dream, which was to play college basketball.

He told me exactly where I could stick it.

“You guys already went to college,” my son said when I starting giving him my Harvard-Is-A-Priceless-Opportunity and asked to look at his Common App. “Now it’s my turn.”

So, hanging back is a good way to avoid increasing the pressure. But don’t stay totally out of the process. Some kids, even the most independent ones, need help to select schools and apply before the deadlines. My son needed me to bug him to study for the SATs and to sign up to take them and to drive him to a few college campuses. Some schools don’t have college counseling advisors, requiring parents to research schools and help guide kids. One dad I know, who didn’t go to college himself, was overjoyed to visit schools with his daughter. They went on over 20 college tours. His daughter, rather than seeing this as meddling, understood his pride. Father and daughter learned about college together. So take you cues from your child, not your own ambitions for your child. Only get involved if your kid wants or needs you to be involved.

Another bit of advice: stay quiet in public. Don’t talk to other people about where your child is applying or where he is accepted – unless your child says it is ok to do so. You may inadvertently increase the stress if you and everyone in your family, your neighborhood, and your office knows your child’s first choice school, and when they will get the acceptance or rejection news. Ask your child, as soon as he or she starts looking at colleges, what is ok/not ok to discuss with friends, relatives, and other parents.

Stay quiet at home, too. Senior year, ask about college applications at most once a week. With other seniors nervous about the process, school may suddenly become a college application stress pit. Your child may feel extremely preoccupied by, and worried about, applying to colleges. No matter what her GPA, she may be fearful she may not get into their first choice – or anywhere. Try to keep home a haven. If your child flips out irrationally a few times the fall of their senior year (as mine did), go easy. They are stressed, their friends may be even more stressed, and home may be the only respite from college talk that they get.

Finally, don’t be afraid to step in when the process gets too intense. One of my favorite examples of strategic avoidance is a family with senior twins who decided to go away over the long weekend when college decisions were issued. It was a smart way to insulate their children from the spotlight of well-meaning friends, teachers, and relatives who all knew where each child wanted to go.

As a parent, I’ve been lucky with the college application process so far. Essentially on his own, my son applied early to his first choice school. A place I’d never visited. A place my family can afford to send him. A place where I’d be proud to see him go.

He got in. He said yes. The end.

The end of the college application process, for me, at least. The beginning of my son’s story.

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