The transition to college is an important and dramatic step in the passage to adulthood. The college years are a time when young people will become more independent and self-sufficient and when the intensely close bond with their families will loosen, a profound change for both parents and child. But before teenagers can embark on the challenging and exhilarating journey of their college careers, they must endure the byzantine ritual of getting into college. “The college admissions process provokes fear in students and anxiety in parents,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Jayne Walco of Morris Psychological Group. “Students are mentally and physically exhausted from studying and extracurricular activities and many are stressed out from the pressure of expectations. The more accomplished and affluent the family, the more teens feel pressed to excel and to enhance the family’s prestige by gaining admission to a top-ranked school. Even the highest-achieving students fear that they won’t measure up.”
Parents feel the pressure too. No matter how good their intentions to resist the frenzy, to approach college admission calmly and methodically, and to avoid pushing their child, when friends and neighbors are enlisting expensive tutors, test preparation courses and consultants who will guide them every step of the way, they fear that their children will be at a competitive disadvantage if they don’t sign on. “It’s all too common for parents to become over-invested in the application process,” says Dr. Walco, “to hover over their children, to direct their choices of classes and activities, to nag them to study and complete applications, and to intensify the pressure on them rather than protect them from it. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Every bookstore has shelves full of books with advice for students and their parents on how to navigate the process – tips on school selection, visiting, test-taking, essay writing, interviewing and more. Dr. Walco emphasizes just two key principles that will help students and their parents keep the proper perspective as they move through the process.
Focus on fit
Define success not as gaining a coveted spot in one of a handful of elite institutions but as finding the right fit – a school that suits a student academically, socially and emotionally. “The prestige of a school is not a guarantee of an effective educational environment for a given student,” she says. “The most important thing is for a student’s sense of self-worth to be unhitched from acceptance by a highly selective school, to not see rejection as failure.”
Parents should help youngsters understand that gaining admission to a top-tier school has little to do with qualifications. The schools are swamped with so many applications from supremely qualified students that acceptance might as well be by lottery or may depend on whether the school had enough tuba players but needed debaters. Many who don’t make it are as well qualified as those who do.
Parents should also help their youngsters avoid fixation on one particular school. “It’s fine to have a first choice,” says Dr. Walco, “but there are others that will be as good or better for a particular student. The schools that you apply to should all be schools that are a good fit and from which you’ll be excited to receive an acceptance envelope.”
Follow your own star
College admissions staff are tired of carefully crafted resumes, in which every class, every extra-curricular activity, every vacation has been chosen with a view to this very moment. If you’re more passionate about learning Italian than physics, go for it. If you’d rather play Hamlet than play football, so be it. Spending a summer scooping ice cream at the corner store can be more valuable to your personal growth than trekking the Himalayas. Colleges are looking for individuality that will add to the wonderful mix of people and personalities that enriches the college experience for all. The same goes for interviews and essays – let your individualism show.
“The best outcome of the admissions process is to find a school that will be right for the student,” Dr. Walco concludes, “one that will foster his or her intellectual, social and emotional development and support the transition to independence and a fulfilling adult life. Twenty years from now, your success will be a product of your character traits – how hard you worked, how you treated people, how you handled adversity – not of whether you attended the top-ranked school.”