How to Talk to Your Kids About ... College

Posted: January 10, 2016

​These are dark days. Not only because we just passed the shortest day of the year, but also for our seniors applying to college. Finals are approaching, or just finished. The holidays are over, but it inexplicably continues to snow. Many early and rolling admissions decisions have come in. The kids may have received the results they wanted, or may not have. If not, we could have some struggling seniors on our hands.
Rejection is a college application process fact of life and yet it’s hard not to take a denial of admission personally. After all, they’ve put their whole self into the application. They’ve talked about their passions, shown the schools what a great asset they will be in class discussions, what a great roommate they will be. And the school says, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Or the school says yes and the major, program or Honors College says no. That’s hard to hear as students, and as a parent it’s hard to hear that your child will not get something they’ve worked so long and hard to achieve.
There are lots of reasons one student may be offered admission over another. Given that all students who apply are capable of doing the work, the decision has to come down to other factors. We have no control over how our students fit into the institutional goals of the colleges to which they are applying.  So we wait on pins and needles, while they wait on beds of nails, to find out if that school “likes me likes me” or just wants to be friends.
Seniors need to know it’s not personal, and that they are not the only ones feeling this way. Every 12th grader in the country is in agony right now. It’s normal. Tell your student how you felt when you were applying to college. Admit that you spent your entire senior year feeling like you wanted to go out into the backyard and scream, how scared you were that you’d never find a place, how your mother had to lock you in your room until you wrote your application essay. (That can’t have been just me, right? Right?)
Tell them that application decisions are mysterious things, because it ultimately comes down to “fit,” and no one can define what “fit” is. This is especially true at those highly-selective colleges, where there’s often no way to know, even in hindsight, why a decision came down the way it did. Remind them that if they are accepted to more than one college--and most will be—they will be in the same position the admissions committees are in now. They’ll have to decide which invitation they’ll accept and it will probably be a number of factors that help them make the decision, not the least of which was “It just felt right.”
So while you may feel it’s unfair that your student didn’t get their first choice school, trust the process. Surveys have shown repeatedly that most college freshman are happy where they end up, even at their third, fourth or fifth choice school. Show your child that you’re disappointed with them and for them, but not in them, because it’s not the end of the world. As Frank Bruni puts it in his column "How to Survive the College Admissions Madness," “Rejection is fleeting, … and survivable.”
That’s our job as parents now: teach them how to survive. Teach them how to take the punch, get up and pivot. How to make a backup plan even though you hope you won’t need it. How to believe in yourself because this, too, shall pass. This is where their intelligence turns into wisdom.
Five years from now, on graduation day, the child sobbing on your shoulder will be unrecognizable: an adult who has faced darkness and prevailed, who has blossomed in ways neither of you can predict. And that is true no matter which college they choose.

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