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Staying Sane During the College Application Process

Help my daughter apply to college? Nothing to it, I thought. I was so, so wrong.

The three months that we struggled through the process turned out to be filled with pressure, arguments, emotional outbursts, and vast stretches of black depression. But along the way, I learned a few hard truths.

First: Remember what it was like when you applied to college? It’s not like that anymore. At all.
More kids are applying for fewer spaces than ever before, and the pressure from counselors, teachers, peers, and parents—yes, you!—is far greater. Colleges want to know much more than they did in your day (let’s just call it “The Seventies,” and leave it at that). One example: back then, the entire application for the University of California was about four pages long. Today the application form is sixteen pages long … and the instruction book for the application is forty-eight pages. So start with this first certainty: you know nothing.

Second: You better be organized, but you can’t be prepared.
You can find dozens of books and Web sites explaining the application process, including one that promises to chop essay-writing time to one hour (yeah, why waste more than one stinkin’ hour on writing the single most important document of your teen’s life, hah?) These books are crammed full of the painfully obvious, the inapplicable, the contradictory, and not much more.

The one helpful guide we found was by Arlene Matthews, a psychologist, college counselor, and author of Getting in Without Freaking Out: The Official College Admissions Guide for Overwhelmed Parents. Her clear and real-world advice will help you sleep at night and still get the job done. Among the gems that deserve to be put on posters: “Relax, it’s only college,” “Stress is a killjoy,” “Procrastination is inevitable; accept it,” and, “You know you’ll still love them, no matter where they go.”

Third: Remember who’s applying to college (hint: it’s NOT YOU).
As parents, we have an overwhelming sense of how terribly important this process is—much more than most of the actual applicants. This leads to an almost irresistible urge to simply take over and get it done, like we did with their fifth grade science project. It was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now. Soon your beloved teen is going to be on His/Her Own, and you won’t be around to do Things for them. Matthews suggests that the best role for the parent is keeper of the timeline. “Help them organize, create a checklist. You don’t want them to blow any deadlines.” Sure, you should proofread their application and essays. But beyond that, try and take a back seat.

Fourth: Relax. Your kid will get in somewhere.
It’s important to remember—in fact, write this down and put it on the refrigerator—that The National Association of College Admission Counseling says 69.9 percent of college applicants are accepted. That’s two out of three. I wish I had those odds in Vegas. And, as Arlene Matthews says, “It’s not where you go, it’s who you are.”

And last: It’s actually worth it.
I learned just how creative, independent, and organized—how ready for college—my daughter was by working with her on the applications … and by letting her take the lead. And it became an opportunity to work side-by side with her one last time. When the smoke and tears (mostly mine) finally cleared, I realized I was glad to have been part of it. And, best of all, we even managed to successfully apply to four separate colleges without killing each other. (Note I said, successfully apply. The story isn’t over … but at least this process is.)

By Brad Munson

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