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Ask Allison: My teen is applying for college and we're all stressed out. What can we do?

Applying for — and choosing — colleges can be a strain on parents and teens. Here's how to deal.
Applying for — and choosing — colleges can be a strain on parents and teens. Here's how to deal. (Getty Images)

With graduation just months away, most high school seniors are in the throes of their college planning, from polishing off personal essays before application deadlines close to anxiously awaiting their chosen school's verdict. For those who applied early decision, there's also the sting of rejection or the agonizing over whether or not this really is the right school. Some teens are spoiled for choice — and wondering if they might have a better college experience if they ditch the dream school Mom and Dad are pushing and just follow their friends or high school sweetheart somewhere. It's a season of stress, self-doubt and power struggles. What's the best way through it?

What Allison says: I just endured the college process with my oldest, who is now a freshman in college, and I’m gearing up to go through it with my youngest, a high school junior. And with the process still fresh in my mind, I completely understand how fraught and nerve-wracking this can be. Before I get to an expert’s advice, I wanted to share a few things that I learned along the way.

One, please know that unlike what many people believe when you embark on the process, there is no magical perfect school for any child. So many students I know landed at schools that may not have been their initial top choices, and they are now so, so happy at the university that accepted them. And if they aren’t, there are transfer options. As I told my son when the stress was fraying us at the seams: Nothing about this has to be permanent if you so choose. Hopefully, it is, but if not, you are not married to this college for life.

Two, for many students and their families, the process will feel arbitrary and random. That’s because in many ways, it is. So many kids who seem like slam dunks will not necessarily end up at their “top choice,” and it has nothing to do with how hard they worked or their test scores or anything else in their application. As much as we want the process to be strictly about what our child has accomplished, a lot of it also has to do with what the college is looking for and their attempts to fill their own needs. Whatever happens, it’s important to remind your teen (and yourself) that a rejection or deferral is not a reflection of who they are. I really can’t emphasize this enough. Many schools have multiples of stellar candidates, and I don’t think there’s much point in picking apart why your child didn’t get in or why someone else’s child did. Again, there are so many amazing institutions out there, and one of them will be so thrilled for your son or daughter to matriculate at their school.

Third, please separate your own aspirations from those of your child. What you may think is a dream school — whether because of its reputation or particular program or for a multitude of other reasons — may not be at all what your child wants. True, teenagers don’t always know exactly what they want, much less what they’ll want for the next four years, but it’s important to let them have some agency over this decision. They are young adults now, and even if you had your heart set on Whatever Top 50 School, your child may want to go in a totally different direction. They aren’t you, and you aren't them. That emotional separation will spare you a lot of arguments as you muddle through applications. Also, college these days is not for everyone. We should get more comfortable with that.

I also reached out to Mandee Heller Adler, a private college counselor and founder of International College Counselors in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., who echoes my thoughts on the opaque process. She says it’s important to let kids complain about the stress of it all. For many kids, this is the first time they are truly arbitrarily judged, and it’s scary and daunting. Show your teen some grace when they spiral into a grouch and slam their bedroom door.

How to handle a kid upset over not getting into their first pick? "I’d give him a lot of encouragement and the time to apply to a lot more colleges,” Adler says. “Since colleges are looking for more than just grades and scores, the best thing to do is to cast a wide net (while being mindful of average grades and scores of admitted students) to see who might need a child like [yours]. Perhaps they need an oboe player and that’s exactly what your [child] does? ... You never know!”

If you log into the Common App, Adler says, you will see a tab with hundreds of schools that are still accepting applications. Grab your Fiske Guide and see which ones might still be great fits. Additionally, Adler suggests reaching out to a private counselor if you have the means, or an experienced teacher or school counselor to review your child’s application, particularly the essays. “Very often, kids sound too boastful or too humble in their essays. Finding that middle ground is where an unbiased adult can come in to offer perspective,” she shares. Essentially, having another set of eyes may help spot an area that can be strengthened and give your child a better leg up.

Author and mom of teens Allison Winn Scotch.
Author and mom of teens Allison Winn Scotch. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Kat Tuohy)

Now, what if you have a teen who just wants to follow his girlfriend or friends to whatever school they've chosen? The key to his decision making may come from giving him more information. “It’s important to understand that for most teens, being ‘cool’ and having friends is at the top of their priority list. It’s not mature, but it’s very age-appropriate,” Adler notes. “So, I would not try to mitigate their reality. Instead, let your son visit the colleges he has been accepted to. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the differences between the colleges because he’s never actually been to them. After 20+ years of experience, I can say that nothing seems to change a teen’s mindset like an actual visit, preferably without a parent and with a current student.”

I endorse this suggestion: How your son or daughter feels on campus may be totally unexpected, for better or worse. I know kids, including my son, who visited schools completely prepared to love them and walked away crossing them off their lists, and of course, doing the reverse as well. That said, travel is expensive, so if a trip stretches your budget, there is copious information on the internet since so many schools put their tours online during COVID. You could also ask your school counselors if they know a current student at that university who may be able to speak with your child. Or, reach out to friends of friends. I’m in several online parenting groups, for example, where people frequently ask questions about colleges to hear real-life experiences. Teenagers are stubborn, but hearing opinions directly from a peer may help sway them in one direction or another.

The good news about all of this is that it will be over soon enough, and then, before you know it, you’ll be waiting on dorm assignments and then your kids will be out the door. So try to remember that the stress of this process is finite, and chances are, your kids will soar wherever they land.

About Ask Allison: Allison Winn Scotch is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels. Her 10th book, Take Two, Birdie Maxwell, will be released March 5, 2024. She lives in Los Angeles with her family — including two teens. Need more help demystifying the experience of parenting your own teens? Email Allison at heylifeeditors@yahooinc.com with your question, and it may inspire a future column.