How to Help Your Child Navigate the College Search
Parents should be consultants, not directors, in the college search process.
Every year, we see kids who struggle to make it through their first year of college. In most cases, they also had difficulties with the college application process, which was often driven by their parents. This is a familiar scenario.
Parents want their kids to succeed in school and to be able to plan their own academic paths, but this can only happen if they resist the urge to micromanage. The best way for parents to help kids succeed during their college search is for them to act less like directors and more like consultants – advising, but not controlling.
After all, if a teen can’t handle being in control of the admissions process, then she will likely struggle when navigating college. Ideally, kids should get plenty of experience running their own lives before they leap into a new environment that may be academically and emotionally challenging. This is particularly important given the growing mental health crisis on college campuses, where increasing numbers of students report feeling stress and anxiety.
Of course, that doesn’t mean handing over the reins is easy. Parents need to talk to their child before the college search process begins. Assure her you are not going to try to talk her into any one school or out of another.
You might say, “There are thousands of colleges out there. Ultimately, nobody can make a better decision than you about what will suit you best.” And remind her, and yourself, that she is the person who is going to work hard there for four years, not you.
Set boundaries. Be clear about what you will or won’t do. Explain that you won’t do the research on programs or write admissions essays for your child, but that you will be there as a sounding board to help him think through every angle and find the best fit.
Brain science tells us that when kids have a sense of control over their lives in this manner, they operate more out of their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls executive functioning – problem-solving, planning and decision-making, for instance – rather than from a place of fear or self-defense. And since the brain develops according to how it’s used, the more time spent exercising this part of it, the better it is for overall development.
Choosing a school is a process in which kids can really learn to better understand themselves – and get valuable practice in making important decisions on their own. As a parent, you send a powerful message when you let your child know you trust him to make good choices. It encourages him to think honestly about himself and to seek advice from other knowledgeable people.
Plus, you can still find ways to help him make an informed decision. You might say, “There are going to be places you like and places you hate, and I’m going to ask you annoying questions to help you figure out why.”
Standardized tests represent another opportunity to put on your consultant hat. Parents constantly ask us if they should make their kid take a particular test or how much exam prep he needs, but these are the wrong questions. Don’t make the decisions for him. Instead, help him gather information about the tests and what colleges require, and then let him decide – and do the work.
Try asking questions: “Do you want to take a class? Prep by yourself or with a tutor? Do you want to take the ACT or SAT one more time?” Supporting his decision-making is good for your relationship; it teaches problem-solving, and it encourages autonomy. Plus, if you push too hard, you may actually harm his score.
Years of neuroscience research have shown that, just as a healthy sense of control allows the brain to function optimally, a low sense of control is extremely stressful and impairs one’s learning ability, judgment and emotional well-being. The less kids feel in control of their lives and the more pressure they feel, the less likely they are to perform well. They’ll also be less motivated.
Everyone has a sweet spot of performance, one where they are challenged but not overly stressed. The more your child understands where this place is, the better he will do in positioning himself for success.
When the time comes to start applying to schools, you might ask, “Do you want help with organizing the process?” or “Can I help you find time to work on this?” If she is feeling motivated but overloaded, then she might appreciate the help.
But if she doesn’t want it, don’t push. Remember: She may not be comfortable with the timetable that you prefer. She needs to wrestle with that on her own, just as she’ll eventually have to grapple with deadlines for college papers and projects by herself.
Research has demonstrated that you cannot force someone else to feel motivated. The best thing to do is to start early to encourage your child to pursue activities about which he is enthusiastic. The more time he spends deeply engrossed in activities he loves, the more self-directed his brain will be overall, and that success can carry over to the college search process.
At the end of the day, if you are working harder than your kid to get him into college, then that’s a clear indicator that he probably isn’t ready – and that readiness won’t magically appear at freshman orientation. In that case, it might be worth considering another option, such as a gap year. Although letting go can be tough, remember that what all parents ultimately want for their kids is the ability to make good decisions for themselves.
Source: William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, US News, Sept. 14, 2018.