By Rachelle McClintock, www.rachellemcclintock.com
In any year, first-semester seniors experience low-grade anxiety over college applications, while their parents feel like their stress-o-meter is off the charts. This year, however, with limited access to school guidance counselors and standardized tests no longer serving as gatekeepers, admission to college feels like the wild wild west. Add to that the proclivity students have to wildly underestimate how long college applications take, and it’s easy for parents to lose perspective. What might have begun in July as encouragement, may give way to nagging in late August and September, and may very well––if you’re like most families–– degenerate to a shouting match by October. This is just the nature of collaboration between parent and student in an attention-to-detail, high-stakes enterprise.
Here’s the good news — while many things are swirling around us, the college admissions process is pretty much unchanged. Narrow down the college list, build the resume, write the essays, compile the activities list, request the transcript through official channels, and invite teachers to write recommendations. Although it may seem like everything is changing this year, the actual application process is business as usual.
Because I am an essay coach, many parents ask me whether essays will be more important this year than in years past. That is simply not knowable, as every institution is looking for applicants that align with their unique values. This, however, I can say with confidence: COVID-19 is not a wrecking ball to colleges’ carefully determined selection criteria. What has historically been important in their evaluation of applicants is still important––and a bit of research via the College Board website will easily illuminate that. What is always important across all institutions is a well-curated application. What do I mean by well-curated? This year will favor students who take the time to thread a cohesive narrative through all aspects of their application. Admissions teams are always in search of demonstrated leadership, consistency in extracurriculars, academic curiosity, and character traits like initiative, maturity, resilience, and self-awareness. When possible, students should present experiences, extracurriculars, and stories that demonstrate those highly prized attributes.
It’s easy for students to hit application and essay fatigue in September. Don’t forget, many of your teen’s friends are in the same boat with multiple applications and looming deadlines. Why not team up with some other parents and host a weekly “college application study hall” at your home with pizza and Netflix afterward? Maybe they won’t get as much done as they would if they worked independently, but at least you’ve created a positive context for what would otherwise be a drudgery. Above all, as you navigate the fall, remember the most important thing you can do for your teen during the admissions process is be present and keep perspective. Your senior may start to feel overwhelmed and anxious — the last thing they need is a parent shouting at them. Take a deep breath, paste that smile on your face, and encourage them get the job done. This too shall pass.
Rachelle McClintock is a college essay coach and creator of the 1-Week Essay Method. Her own writing has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. She is a member of Charlotte Writers’ Club and N.C. Writers’ Network. When she isn’t running carpool, watching baseball, or reading admissions essays, she is working on her lifelong dream of writing a novel.