College planning for kids/parents to reduce anxiety

Anxiety is on the rise, and the pandemic didn’t help. I’m a mom of teens in addition to being a full-time college administrator and part-time college counselor. I see anxiety and depression every day with the teens in my life. My own son is a junior. I’ve had to figure out how to structure his college planning in a way that doesn’t cause him to shut down and shut me out. Here are some tips I’ve learned from dealing with him and other students anxious about (or just wanting to avoid) college planning.

Set up a regular time to meet–As a manager and a mom, I hate hallway hijacking. It’s that moment when you are headed to the bathroom or doing some task around the house/office and someone stops you to tell/ask you something but you have no time to really think about the answer or remember the details they are providing. Kids are the same way. Sending them random texts or pestering them as they are getting ready for school with “Have you done your test prep” or “did you look at that college I sent you” isn’t going to be helpful. Set up a standing meeting at a regular interval (juniors could be once a month or every other week, seniors every other week or once a week depending on where you are in the search). This will allow you to both be prepared for the conversation and know its coming. Make it fun–have a snack, drink and low pressure. This will cut down on you feeling like a nag.

Have an agenda (it doesn’t have to be a formal one)–have a general sense of what you are going to cover in the meeting. Maybe to start you just want to look through brochures that have been coming in the mall or ask your child to pull up some of the emails they have been receiving. Maybe you want to use the time to set up college visits together looking at the family calendar. Maybe you want to have a frank discussion about affordability a general budget and how to investigate schools that meet that cost. You might use the time to review their essays, or look at application materials. Discuss what you want to cover in the next meeting and let your child add items to the agenda so its not just driven by the parent.

Set a clear to do list for the next meeting–as you wrap up the meeting set out clear to dos for both parent and child. Parent may say “I’m going to do the net price calculator at these schools to see if we can afford them” or “I’m going to set up the visits at the 5 schools we identified”. You might have the child leave with tasks like “research these 5 schools, look at the major you are interested in, the courses they offer, the clubs and activities, do a virtual tour” or “Link your PSAT to Khan Academy and start test prep for the SAT”, “create your common application account” or “ask teachers for letters of recommendation”.

Make time for visits–it is very challenging to figure out where to go to college if you have never been on a campus and met the people who go to school there. Go see a college–a large state school, a medium sized college (public or private) and a small private. Get a sense of what they like and why. If they love the small private but its out of budget–can you find other small privates that give better aid or does the large public have programs that make it feel smaller like a living learning center? You will also make some great memories together. Have you child look up where to eat in the town. Let them get a t-shirt in the bookstore (although some colleges will give them one on the tour). Talk about what they liked and what you heard. Then work together to find schools that are similar.

Build a calendar/plan for applications–students can often get stressed out having to complete all the application materials, write essays, get needed documentation. Building a plan can be helpful for managing that process on top of a busy school, activity and work schedule. Once you have the list of schools where they plan to apply, look at deadlines. When do you have to apply to be considered for merit aid? Put all the schools into a spreadsheet or document with their due dates. List what application you plan to use (common app, school specific app, coalition app, etc). Then work backwards. If you have 5 applications that are due Nov 15 and each requires a school specific essay, set a deadline to have each one done (Plan to submit around Nov 10th to give some flexibility and a safety net as technology can break, people get sick, surprise tests/etc creep up). Plan maybe two weeks for each application. So starting early September will be helpful to make sure everything is done.

Remember your child is a teenager–they are influenced by their peers. They move at a snail’s pace. They don’t understand all the factors that will matter later in life. They are uncomfortable asking for help. They will pick a college based on things like sports team, school colors, dining options even if you think those are ridiculous. All of these things will make every task hard and drive parents nuts. Depending on their high school environment, everyone may be talking about college. The constant discussion creates pressure. Seeing where peers are getting in creates pressure. Home should not add to that pressure. Sometimes “checking out” is a mental health tactic. If they seem to be checking out, maybe bring in their school counselor or a professional to help guide the process or give them someone to talk to that’s not you.

Don’t let them get their heart set on one school, and don’t push a school you want heavily–Admissions is an ever changing experience. Kansas just won the basketball tournament–there applications will probably soar. St. Peter’s in New Jersey will probably see a 30% increase after their tournament experience. As a result they may deny students who would have gotten in when applications were lower. Top schools like MIT are almost a lottery–they can admit anyone who applies and have a great class but they get 33,000 applications for about 1350 spots–its nearly impossible to get admitted. Any school that admits less than 25% of their application pool is a long shot–even if you are a great student. Any school that admits less than 10% should be considered a crap shoot. You need to build a balanced list of schools that include many places your child will be happy to attend and you can afford. Nothing is worse than having no schools your child wants to attend or having no ability to afford where they have been admitted.

Be encouraging-there is absolutely a college for everyone. My most successful sibling went to a college most people have never heard of (SUNY Plattsburg). Be excited about every school they are applying to and be excited about every acceptance. My son will often send me a school that I don’t think is a great fit for him because he is a strong student. He also sends me schools where I know he will not get admitted. I will say “That’s great you like X school–its a great safety school. You might want to look at things like graduation rates and the major courses to see if you feel it offers all you want in a school”. Or if they are super selective I say “you certainly can check it out. There average SAT is around a 1490. You’d need to do some serious test prep and take physics and calculus senior year. But if you are willing to do that, lets keep it on the list”. That lets him decide if he wants to do the work to attend that school.

Coffman Consulting is happy to meet with you to provide some general guidance or work with you throughout the entire admission process. You can schedule a free consultation here.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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