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College Admissions: What's a Parent To Do?

In 2010, many colleges received a record-breaking number of applications. The stakes are high, and so is the level of stress.

I am a proud member of Generation X—a former latchkey kid who was raised to be self-reliant, independent minded and driven. As a child, I did my own laundry, cooked many of my meals and packed my lunch for school. My homework was just that—mine. And when it came time for me to choose a college, I alone did the research and completed the necessary applications. 

Twenty-five years later, my 17-year-old daughter is searching for her perfect college. And my challenge—surprise, surprise—is not to become overly involved in the process. You’d think that someone raised the way I was would have no problem stepping back, would find it easy to let my child be completely in charge of this phase of her life. You’d be wrong.

Thirty-five thousand high school seniors applied for admission to Harvard in 2010. That’s a 15 percent increase over the previous year. But that is Harvard. My daughter probably won’t be applying there.

Unfortunately, numbers aren’t much better closer to home. The University of California system saw a 6.1 percent uptick in applications in 2010. And applications for were at an all-time high, with 53,455 students wanting to be considered for the 2011 freshman class and another 17,019 hoping to transfer in. That’s an increase of 12.9 percent over last year.

With statistics like these, is it any surprise that parents such as myself have a hard time sitting quietly on the sidelines? We want to be involved, feel the need to be. But how?

Results from a new survey, The American Freshman: National Norms 2010, indicate that the emotional health of college freshman is at an all-time low. In the survey, 200,000 full-time students entering four-year colleges from across the United States were asked to rank their current state of mental health. Only 52 percent classified it as being above average. And this was after they had been accepted to college. 

What about before college acceptance? Are high school upperclassmen equally stressed and depressed? If so, can a parent’s participation in the college admissions process heighten that stress? 

All of this was weighing heavily on my mind a few weeks ago when my daughter and I attended college night at her high school. Thankfully, I wasn’t walking into the process cold. The school’s college counseling department, all too aware that anxious parents want to know what is going on as soon as possible, has been holding informational meetings since the fall of my daughter’s freshman year. But this event, held at the start of the second semester of junior year, is the official kickoff of the admissions process.   

Upon arrival, we were given a packet that included our student’s transcript, a sheet describing the college admissions software Naviance, and a timeline that listed dates for standardized testing, AP exams and the first meeting with the counselor.

We were also handed two surveys, one to be completed by my daughter, the other by my husband or me. During the hour-long presentation, our counselor stressed her intention to get to know—really know—our child. She said that, along with in-depth conversation, the best way for that to happen was through the surveys.

My husband and I will answer questions such as these:

  • In what ways has your child surprised you? Does he/she excel at something you never thought possible?
  • Discuss the personal growth in your child that you have noticed since his/her freshman year of high school up to today
  • Do you have any concerns about the college planning process? What are they? How significant a role will financial aid play in your decision making process about where to attend college?

I left the meeting feeling very good, sure that my daughter will be in capable hands, and relieved to have at least one task that I am responsible for completing. 

On the drive home, I told my daughter that I was excited about turning this process over to her and her counselor. I explained that I did not want to be cast in the role of the bad guy and feared that was exactly what was going to happen. My opinions seemed to be welcome as long as they matched hers. But as soon as I disagreed or offered a different point of view, I was labeled as being difficult, or worse yet, pushy. I reiterated that I understood that this search, this process, was for her—not me.  

And then I went on to describe in great detail why I love large universities. 

Baby steps. 

Kristine Valenzuela February 22, 2011 at 12:21 AM
Great insight Jen! I'm just around the corner from having to deal with college admissions for my oldest daughter so you're not alone in how you feel.
Jennifer Armour February 25, 2011 at 01:56 AM
Thanks Kristine. Along with being a tad bit stressful, this really is a very exciting time.

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