Getting ready for college

Junior year planning

The new year means big plans for families of high school juniors. Thoughts of higher education begin to turn from fantasy to reality as the college application process kicks off. By the middle of the junior year, teens begin to think about SATs, campus visits and the mountain of paperwork required for the applications.

Parents start worrying about when the applications will be completed and how good the essay looks. They may lobby for certain schools or programs, and second guess the choices, actions and abilities of the emerging adult in their home. The college application process is a time of change and growth for many families. Here are some suggestions from local counselors to make the facing of the challenges a little bit easier:

Your child is going to college—not you! We all have visions of our child on a college campus, maybe even at a specific university. Our kids have plans, too. Sometimes though, the plans collide. As she approaches adulthood, it’s important to let go of your expectations and let your teen start taking control of her life. The most important thing about choosing a college is getting the best match for the child, rather than a school with an elite reputation.

“When it comes to choosing a school, a lot of parents come around to the student’s point of view in the long run,” explains Joanna Schultz, College Counselor at The Ellis School. “Another point of conflict can be how and when things like applications and essays get done. Teens have to work on their own timetables.”

It’s also important to let the teen fill out his own forms and write his own essays for college. Resist the temptation to give too much help to a busy teen. If he can’t get through the application process, how can he be expected to handle university level coursework?

“Some parents become overly enmeshed in their children’s college application process, not allowing the applicants to experience and take ownership of important choices,” says Nancy Wallach, academic counselor at Taylor Allderdice High School. “Parents bring in applications to the counselor, explaining that the student is too busy to handle the paperwork. This is not in the student’s best interest.’”

Set your parameters early on. It may be your child’s future but it’s probably your paycheck that covers the tuition. If you have certain financial limits or need your child to be within driving distance, make sure she is aware of these expectations.

However, don’t make the mistake of assuming the tuition “sticker price” is what you will have to pay. Some higher priced institutions offer aid packages and merit scholarships that can make them financially competitive with a state school.

Expect it to be different with each child. A teen’s personality will influence how he gets through the application process. Boys and girls tend to approach the process differently.

“Girls will tell you what they are thinking at each step. Boys don’t wear their hearts on their sleeve,” explains Jennifer FitzPatrick, director of college guidance at Sewickley Academy and former associate director of admissions at Allegheny College. “Boys may not tell you what they thought of the campus visit or where they are thinking of applying. The big misconception is that boys drag their feet, but they really do what they need to, though it may be at the very last minute.”

Boys or girls who are bad with paperwork and deadlines may need extra parental help. Set aside a specific time each week for a “college meeting” rather than nagging when the mood strikes. Use this time to plan college visits, assess progress on applications or financial aid forms, or proofread essays. If the work isn’t done, bite your tongue and allow the teen to use the time to do the work rather than listen to you harangue her for half an hour.

Anticipate unexpected expenses during senior year. Michele Gaydos of Murrysville knew college would be a big expense, but she didn’t anticipate how much it would cost just to get her daughter through her senior year. “It adds up quickly,” she says. “I didn’t think about things like class rings, senior portraits, formals, graduation announcements and parties. Be sure to set aside some savings for this.”

Remember, he’s more than a college applicant. Many students dread family events. It seems that every well-intentioned family member asks the same question: “Where are you applying to college?” Make a point of reminding your family and friends to include other topics in the repertoire of conversation. This is a significant developmental stage for a teen, so it’s important to recognize all of his fears and excitement, those to do with college and those that are not.

Rejection hurts. Applying for college is the first time kids are judged in such a monumental way. No matter what your child says, rejection hurts, even if the application was a long shot sent nonchalantly. “When this happens, take your cue from what your child does,” Schultz says. “If she wants to be private about it, let her. If she wants to talk, honor that but don’t try to fix it. She will recover. Most teens forget in a month or two that they were so upset.”

The decision isn’t final. Despite best efforts, some students end up at a school that isn’t the best fit and the application process starts all over again. It’s a good idea to save the essays and other written work—just in case.

“Transferring is just like applying all over again with the application, essays, and deadlines,” explains Monica Kao of Mt. Lebanon. “What I learned with my daughter is that if the first year, first choice, doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world. Your child will find another school.”

Sue Washburn is a freelance writer from Apollo, PA.