“Whose Job Is It? Getting Beyond the Committee of ‘We’ In the College Application Process”

By Peter Van Buskirk

The season of reckoning for high school seniors has arrived. At a time in their lives when everything they do takes on the added “last time” significance, they are also coming face-to-face with the prospect of life after high school. The future is now. And, for many, it is wrapped up neatly in a package called “college.”

Getting there, however, is another story. The competition for admission to America’s selective institutions has never been greater and navigating the competitive landscape requires teamwork on the home front. In a scenario rife with irony, students and parents need to find themselves on the same page at a time when their respective agendas are otherwise drifting apart! As the deadlines loom, then, whose job is it to take the college applications to completion?

While the answer might seem obvious, actual behaviors often belie conventional wisdom. Whereas students might find the college application process a bit daunting and approach it rather tentatively, many parents eagerly rise to the task.

Instinctively—and protectively—they take the lead. The result is the “Committee of We”—a highly focused college planning effort energized and organized by Mom, Dad or both. It’s a committee whose objective is clear: “Get into the best college possible.” And its high-level tactical discussions frequently take place at the dinner table. In between “How was your day?” and “Please pass the peas,” you hear from Mom or Dad:

“So, when are we going to start narrowing down our list of colleges?”

We really do need to get signed up for the SAT.”

“Maybe we should start working on applications this weekend.”

The “Committee of We” also shows up around the water cooler at work, in supermarket aisles and in the stands at ballgames as parents proudly compare notes about college planning.

We’re applying to X, Y and Z colleges. We’re pretty sure we’re going to get in at X, though.”

We’re going up to State U. next week where we have an interview with the admission office.”

Needless to say, such conversations can be confusing to the young person! I find myself reminding students, “No, Mom and Dad aren’t going with you. There are no suites for parents at the end of the hall in the freshman dorm!”

Parents, if you see yourself in any of these scenarios, take a step back and reconsider your involvement. The truth is there’s a good chance you’ve become a “helicopter parent”—the constantly hovering presence that sometimes blocks out the sun in your child’s life! You want to make sure he experiences the best opportunities as you clear the way for his inevitable success. Such tendencies don’t make you a bad parent, but they do inhibit your child’s opportunity to grow in confidence as he finds his direction.

In order for your student to fully grasp what it takes to compete for admission she must first take ownership of the process and the outcome. You may be picking up the tab, but for her to embrace the opportunity with confidence you need to discretely slip into a supporting role. The more engaged she is with the process—the more it becomes hers—and the happier she will be with the outcomes.

While you might feel uncomfortable giving up absolute control of the process, you do have an opportunity to remain engaged and make a difference in the quality of the experience your student has as a college applicant. For example:

  • Talk with your student about what he wants—and needs—educationally. Are you and your student on the same page with regard to what constitutes a good college “fit?”
  • Establish your student’s ownership of the process. Help him understand what he needs to do in order to get from where he is to where he wants to be. Guide him, but don’t do it for him.
  • Develop a shared understanding of the “big picture” as it relates to college admission. What do colleges want? Who gets in and why?
  • Help him establish a general calendar of events that will get him through the college application process.
  • Manage expectations around colleges that fit him well. Which places clearly value him for what he has to offer? Where is the synergy between his talents, interests and learning style and an institution’s offerings most evident?
  • Celebrate the person—don’t tinker with the genetic code. He is who he is. Don’t try to make him into something else in order to get into the colleges you might have in mind.

In the process, be supportive, not directive. If you find yourself issuing ultimatums, something has gone wrong. Your child is either stymied or overly anxious and needs assistance, not orders. Remember, it’s his college future that is at stake, not yours.

Giving up control goes against the grain of just about every parenting principle by which you have attempted to live. Oh, you’ll eventually do it just like millions of parents before you, but it still won’t feel natural. If you want your student to find happiness in his own space, though, you’ve got to give it up. The college years are his. He needs to use them to figure out who and what he will be as he enters the rest of his life.

As your child engages in the college application process, he must proceed with the confidence that his worth is not determined by the realization of a dream, especially yours. Success or failure as an applicant to a given college will not change the course of human events! It certainly doesn’t lessen the power of his potential. By reducing the fear of failure (that he won’t meet your expectations), you increase his chance of success as an applicant

The answer to the opening question, then, is easy. Completing the college application is your child’s job. This is about her and her future. She is the college applicant and her application must bear her signature. Finding success in the process, though, will require a special kind of teamwork.

So, smile and relax. Too many parents get so caught up in the rush to “win” that they take the process—and themselves—too seriously. Stay calm and maintain perspective. The opportunity to pursue a college education is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. Give it unconditionally. Give it with love. And celebrate the occasion!

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