May is a month when high school juniors find themselves staring at the seemingly “uphill” portion of the college planning process. Whereas the prospect of “going to college” has been on the radar screen for quite a while, the task of getting there is now approached with a new-found sense of earnestness.
The coming months will find students compiling lists and sorting through options in the hopes of happy outcomes. It won’t be easy, though. Just contemplating the upcoming gauntlet of college visits, essay preparation, and tests—not to mention the panicked rush to meet application deadlines—can induce waves of anxiety on even the most thoughtfully organized families.
Getting “there”—to the happy endpoint—with a modicum of sanity intact, then, requires an implicit understanding of roles and responsibilities. And it requires recognition that ownership of the process and the outcomes rests with the student.
The question of ownership in the college planning process isn’t easily or comfortably resolved—if addressed at all—within many families. After all, parents have been heavily invested in outcomes for their progeny since birth. College is simply an extension of the litany of experiences that parents intend for their children on the way to establishing happy and productive lifestyles. And who better than the parents can make the critical decisions about where and how to apply?
The truth of the matter is that the college application and selection process represents a launching pad for young adults as they emerge from the comforts of home, family, and all that is known into a world of self-discovery. They need to recognize—and seize—such opportunities for reasons that are important to them and no one else.
This assertion can be difficult for some parents to swallow. After all, it isn’t easy to give up control and expect an 18-year-old, with little to no experience, to make the right decisions in managing a process of this complexity when the stakes are so high. For these parents, peace of mind is found in handling the important decisions themselves—hiring private educational consultants to manage the process, putting kids in pricey test prep programs and paying for access to essay editing services.
When this happens, students become spectators in the planning for their respective futures. Forced to the sidelines, they are not able to learn and practice good decision-making skills or experience accountability for their actions in a process that impacts their respective futures. Unable to truly affect outcomes, they are affected by them.
The best outcomes in college planning occur when the student is vested with ownership. After all, the parents aren’t going to college; it is the student who must compete for admission. And it is the student, who, based on the strength of his credentials and preparation, will be given the opportunity to test his skills at the next level educationally.
Achieving this opportunity in a manner that is ultimately rewarding to students and satisfying to parents calls for an approach in which parents cede ownership to their students, an approach in which “directing” gives way to “guiding.” Turning over the controls isn’t easy, but at some point it’s necessary. (If you have taught your kids to drive, you know what I mean!) For kids, going to college represents, among other things, the opportunity to step out of their parents’ shadows and into a world of possibilities they can begin to imagine for themselves. And getting there, despite their inexperience and busy schedules, is something they must learn to do for themselves.
The gift of ownership, then, can be incredibly empowering for a young person who is straining to define herself. College admission officers are eager to see how students are emerging as young adults. They want to hear their voices and learn about their accomplishments. They want a measure of the student’s vision and self-confidence that can only come from the student. As a parent, you have done your job in that you have brought her to the point where she can begin speaking for herself. Now, it’s their turn.
Tips to Parents for Implementing the Transition to Student Ownership
- Engage in conversation that gives your student the opportunity to think about and identify his priorities for life after high school.
- If such priorities include a college education, explore with your student the factors that will be essential—in their mind—to defining a successful experience (e.g., distance from home, style of instruction, social life, etc.).
- Focus on finding the best college fit. Preoccupation with prestige and rankings often detracts from a student’s ability to make smart, student-centered choices.
- Give your student responsibility for the development of a college list. Encourage a long list that at first includes a range of options. Then help him assess these schools within the context of “fit” and his priorities. Support opportunities to visit colleges whenever possible.
- Urge your student to maintain a file of information about the colleges that interest them most. The file might include a spreadsheet on which they track data and impressions for each college that relate to their priorities.
- Encourage your student to wrestle with questions such as “What will a college get if it admits you?” and “How might you convince admission officers that you will be a good fit for their schools?” Such conversations will help the student find greater focus when it is time to apply for admission.
Written by Peter Van Buskirk, Director of Student Advocacy