Creating a Fun, Friction-Free College Application Process

At one of our weekly team meetings, we were discussing how difficult it is to be a parent going through the college process.  I had done a Personal Needs Assessment with Abby’s son, which we recorded for training purposes.  Abby recognized after watching that video how much she had been interjecting on behalf of her son as we were going through the questions. 

parents and child discussing college

After watching that meeting, she realized that the best way she could support her son was by pulling back from the process, letting him find his own way.  Perhaps some of his answers to important questions on school size, location, and academic environment may have been different with less parental participation. 

I had a similar epiphany when working with my own kids on how my behavior was hindering, not helping the process.  Below are some tips for how to have a fun, friction-free college application process.

Reserve Judgment (Good or Bad)

With my middle daughter, she would get angry with me if I said things like, “I know you are going to love X school or not like Y school.”  I saw it as “helping” her find the right school.  She saw it as me “telling” her what to think without letting her come to it on her own.  Once she said that, I pulled back and reserved commentary for any school until she came to her own conclusion. 

Establish Boundaries or Regular College Meetings

My youngest couldn’t make up her mind.  She would avoid talking about it whenever I asked because it was too stressful for her to have to make a decision.  And then she would come to me, usually late at night, to talk about something when I was too spent to listen. 

Eventually, I told her that she would need to make appointments with me during the times I see clients and that we would only talk about college related stuff during these appointments.  This took all the pressure off.  If she had something to talk about, she made an appointment, and I could give her my full attention with my “college mentor” hat on and not my parent hat. 

Listen to Your Child

When my oldest was going through the process, she changed her mind constantly.  First she wanted a small school with creative writing as far away from home as possible.  So we put together a list of schools all over the country.  Then, she wanted to go to schools no more than an hour away.  So we visited schools within the geographic parameters she set out, and she eschewed every school. 

Next, she wanted to go to school in Canada. That was quickly squashed when she realized that most of the Canadian schools are huge.  In the end, she chose a school in Boston.  Through the process, she was able to home in on what she really wanted.  Ironically, she now lives in Toronto with her husband, so I guess her inkling to go to Canada was real!

Provide Space for Your Child to Find Their Voice

I am always amazed how different kids are when they are alone with me in a meeting.  They often go from being reserved or short to witty, introspective, kind, and chatty once they have the space to just be without their parents.  Even kids with very close relationships need a safe space to explore their ideas.  This is even more critical for teens who are dealing with family trauma, mental health issues, or identity.  

One of our clients was grappling with his mom’s cancer.  He found out during his sophomore year and hadn’t really had a chance to process it on his own.  During our Essay Brainstorming meeting, he talked about how reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X right after he learned about his mom’s diagnosis, helped him gain a different understanding of Malcolm X. 

Reading the autobiography brought Malcolm X alive, and he saw him as a person whose philosophy changed and grew over time. He realized that life is not linear, and you often have to change directions.  This came full circle back to his mom’s illness.  He recognized that this book resonated with him at this particular moment in his life because it helped him understand what was happening in his own life.  

woman working on computer with pen and paper

Talk Openly about Money

College is expensive!  Many parents will say that they’ll figure it out when the time comes, but the families who speak openly about their budget and bring their kids into the discussion early have a better experience.  One of my clients’ parents never mentioned that money would be a factor in her decision.  When she was deciding between a private selective college in Boston and Schreyers Honors College at Penn State, her parents told her they wouldn’t pay for the private school in Boston.  At first, she was devastated and felt resentful towards her parents, but once she got to Schreyers, she had an amazing experience.  

Another client’s mom spoke openly about her budget for college with her son.  He fell in love with the University of  Colorado at Boulder, but we knew going in that we would need merit aid.  I suggested he look at University of Vermont as an alternative since they had similar vibes, and he would likely get money at UVM.  Together, they made the decision NOT to apply to Boulder knowing that it would be outside of their budget.  He happily attended UVM with a nice merit scholarship that made it within their means.  

Talking about your values for schools on your list prior to making the final decision helps avoid disappointment. 

Have Fun!  

Use visiting colleges as a way of bonding and having fun in each location.  Find a great restaurant or area to tour in each city.  Even if you do it virtually, you can make it fun.  One of our friends who had to tour colleges during Covid ordered food that was typical of each city locale, e.g. BBQ when visiting UT Austin, Creole when visiting Tulane, to make the experience memorable.  

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