The College Application Process and Life After High School Planning is a thing all onto itself. And it really IS a process – a long, exhausting, intense, at times ridiculous, expensive and highly emotional roller coaster. As I look back, I am struck that what is more important than where my kid ended up is how they are on that campus and how our relationship was impacted by the process.

  1. Be positive, it will work out

There is so much stress these days about students getting into college and figuring out what kids “want to do”. It is true that college applications are highly competitive, very time and labor intensive, unreasonable in many ways, and the outcomes are not in our control.  There is a lot of pressure in some communities for kids to attend college when that may not be what makes sense for them. But it is also true that your mindset can impact that of your teen, and it is so important to go into the process with hope, optimism, confidence, and with the conviction that somehow things will work and your child will be ok (and if that really turns out not to be the case then you will figure it out then).

If you are worried, scared or pessimistic, I promise you that your teen will pick up on this and it will make it harder for them to be hopeful and motivated. If you can be the curious, open minded, optimistic parent, you will be more open to possibilities and that will in turn lead to increased options that can be considered. Find a way to deal with your own anxiety. Be on your kid’s side. Positivity, hope and faith in your child will make this process a lot more pleasant!

  1. It is a LONG process

It feels like the college application process starts way earlier than senior year, if we are being real. So many kids and parents are thinking about college even in elementary school when choosing extracurricular activities or in middle school when focusing on getting good grades. Never mind the pressure to build an academic record in high school. 

My advice is to be prepared and aware that this is really a marathon, not a sprint. There will be many facets of the application process, including things that your student has to do and things that others (teachers, guidance counselors, administrators) have to do. There are application deadlines, financial deadlines and aid decisions, early decisions, regular decisions, deferrals, acceptances, rejections and waitlists. Some schools even have housing applications. Don’t forget school tours and visits, talking to others who know more about the various institutions, maybe interviews, accepted students days, and finally decision deadlines. Most families will have a long year of not knowing how things will turn out (but, see #1, having hope that it will turn out ok).

  1. There is no one right school or right path

As I look back, I’m so intrigued by how the process worked out. I could have seen my student at many of the schools that were on the list, and this is why it is so important to build a broad, thoughtful list of schools that your student will apply to. Statements such as, “I need to go to a good school”, “the best school is…” and “the school for me is…” are really not helpful as we can all be happy and successful in many different places. It’s not about what you want or think, it is about your child figuring this out for themselves. The “best” school really is the place your child can feel comfortable, make connections, study something that interests them and have positive, character and skill building experiences. 

Even more importantly, there is no one right path for all students. Applying to college after high school is not the best option or even a possible option for many teens. Some students are more interested in or suited to considering the military, a trade program, a job, travel, self-discovery, academic or emotional development, or even service to others.

  1. Your teen will be different at the end of the process than they were at the beginning

While a 6, 9, or 12 months may not seem life changing to you as an adult, in the life of a teenager, a lot happens and changes. Not only is the brain continuing to develop and establish pathways and connections, but your teen is continuing to accrue new experiences, new relationships, new skills and new ideas.

This is important because what your child thinks they want might change over the course of this process, and it is your job as a parent to not only be open to this possibility but to facilitate discussions that encourage critical thinking and exploration. It’s also helpful because you can remind yourself that you aren’t expected to have all the answers or to know what will be best, that is exactly what the time and process are for.

Your kid will be different at the end of the process than they were at the beginning. And you might be too.

  1. Try really hard not to compare to others

The biggest challenge we have in our current society is not to compare ourselves to what others are doing, saying, posting and sharing. It doesn’t matter where anyone else is looking at schools, applying to schools, getting acceptances or not getting in. It doesn’t matter what any other kid’s stats are – SAT, GPA, class rank, community service hours, or any other number. What matters is that your student identifies the things that are interesting, valuable, important to them and puts a plan in place to accomplish that.

  1. Listen to your teen if you want them to listen to you

Think about the way you approach your teen and consider that this specific experience should represent how you want your relationship with your teen-turning-young adult to be. This process sets you and your child up for what comes next, which is equally if not more important. Remember, the bigger picture here is that we are launching young adults into the world, so we want them to be thoughtful, respectful, able to express their thoughts and feelings, and confident. And if we want our teens to behave in these ways, we need to treat them with respect, trust and an open mind. It can be hard, but ultimately it is extremely rewarding, to listen to your teens, be curious about what they think, feel and experience, and to watch them make decisions and figure out what they want to do, who they want to be, and what is important to them.

  1. There is life after senior year

The application and planning process can be really long, consuming and exhausting, and it also does come to an end. And then there is the really important work of preparing your student for whatever is next – living away from home, figuring out what they want to study and learn, being responsible for so many things they have never done before, making good decisions, adjusting to meeting new people, contributing to the world and embarking on new and unchartered experiences. While scary in some ways, this really is exciting and amazing. In some ways you may feel like you are losing your child, while really your relationship is just changing. It may not be a straight path, and of course there will be challenges, but if you have done even some of the things outlined above, you hopefully have a young adult ready to embark on their own life!