by Smarty Guest Blogger Jack Whelan, Providence Day School
Have you ever heard the parent of a high school junior or senior, perhaps even yourself, utter that fateful pronoun “we” while talking about the college search? It might start with an innocent slip up, “We’re really interested in Virginia Tech,” but can quickly morph into the ridiculous, “We really need to raise our GPA to make Georgetown a possibility.”
Of course, that one little word is not the determining factor in whether you are being a helpful and supportive parent through the college process, but if you do hear yourself saying or thinking “we” too much, then it’s time to start thinking more deeply about your role.
Am I suggesting that you should back off completely and let the chips fall where they may? Absolutely not. While one end of the spectrum — let’s say, writing your daughter’s essay — is clearly inappropriate, so is deciding that your child is old enough to handle this herself or asking “Isn’t that what her high school counselor is for?”
Like most parental dilemmas, your role in the college process is all about balance. No one knows your child better than you do, so the level of initiative and follow through that he has shown in, say, getting his license or completing a history project, will help you walk that “trust, but verify” tightrope.
As not only the Director of College Guidance at Providence Day but also the current father of a college junior and a high school junior, I have experienced both professionally and personally how challenging it can often be to maintain this balance. So here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. While it is important to let your child know up front of any financial (“This is how much we are willing/able to spend”), geographical (“We’d rather you not be a plane ride away”), or other limitations you have for their search, allow the student to be the main arbiter of which colleges seem to be the right fit. Then, work together as you whittle down to the final list.
2. Likewise, with varying amounts of nudging or prodding (there’s that balance again) from you, allow your child’s voice to be the one that colleges hear. Whether you’re taking a college tour together or calling/emailing a college admissions office, your child should be allowed/encouraged to take the lead with questions and correspondences. A good rule of thumb for parents is: “Don’t be more memorable than your child!”
3. The college process, while exciting, can also be stressful and seemingly all-consuming. You may have to work hard to prevent every conversation, whether with your child or even your friends with college-bound children, from revolving around the college search. We tell our students that high school is so much more than just a resume-builder for college, and parents need to remind themselves of the same thing. It’s a shame to waste what may be the last two years of having your child home full-time doing nothing but fretting about SAT prep or whether that latest essay has been finished.
4. Remember that much has changed since you went to college in both the application process itself and the selectivity and quality of the college landscape. While many of the changes may seem to be for the worse (the heightened stress/complexity of the process, fueled by the fact that colleges seem more selective than ever), it is important to remember that the number of great schools is far larger than it was a generation ago. Keep an open mind as you research and tour colleges, and you will be amazed to find the gems that pop up among schools that you have never heard of or had even dismissed when you were in high school.
5. Finally, just trust your instincts. If you feel that you’re doing all the work or are letting the process sour your life and your child’s, take a step back and reassess. Talk to your child, talk to your spouse, talk to your high school counselor, and talk to a friend who has gone through the process already. As we’re in NASCAR country, think of yourself as the pit crew, filling up the gas tank and changing the tires, so that your senior can speed off around the track. (OK, maybe also think of yourself as the team owner, since you’ll likely be paying for it all!)
As you already know, the more independent and self-sufficient your child is, the more likely she is to have a successful college journey. Allowing her to take ownership of the college search is one of the best lessons you can impart.
Jack Whelan is the Director of College Guidance at Providence Day School. He earned his B.A. from Amherst College and his Masters from Middlebury College. As a college counselor, Jack has been giving this advice to parents for years; as a parent, he is trying his best to follow it.