So here we go again. My third and last one is in the final throes of the college application process and I find myself online reading the dialogue of parents struggling with what, at times, seems like an overwhelming process.
When reading online college message boards, I often utter “oh yea, I went through that,” while other times I think, “no, don’t do that.” Most of the time I can sense the stress in the written words. I do not proclaim to be an expert, but this is not my first rodeo and there are a few pieces of advice that I think could help parents new to the college process.
Eight Bits of Advice on the College Application Process
1. There is no right or wrong way to approach college visits.
You do this the way that works for you. You want to visit 30 schools over the summer? Go for it. Visit 2 close by and apply to 10 others you haven’t seen? That’s ok. Apply first and visit later? Sure.
There is so much online information that you can make some good guesses about what may be a good fit without a visit. My oldest was a bit of a foot dragger in the process and the thought of travelling around to 10 colleges over the summer made his head explode as did the thought of an overnight visit in some unknown kid’s dorm room.
But, friends of his did the multi-day, see-em-all, stay over tour and it worked out fine for them. Tailor this experience to YOUR kid. You’re not doing it wrong, you’re doing it your way.
2. Just because your kid is a foot dragger (see above) doesn’t mean they aren’t ready for college.
When we did finally begin visiting, I was so excited to see all the schools. The dorms! The classrooms! The activities! The football stadium!! The kid? Not so much. What is wrong with him, I thought! Why isn’t he jumping up and down with joy and anticipation! These places are FANTASTIC! Where do I sign up??? But, he was my oldest. He just didn’t get it in September of his senior year.
I could describe it, draw pictures, show him movies, talk about my college years…didn’t matter. He couldn’t quite picture how it would work for him. He was a B student in an A+ HS and thought the college world was full of only A+ students and it would be more of the same.
No amount of explaining was putting it in perspective.
But you know what? I knew he would get it. Despite the many quiet rides home from college visits, I knew that getting out of Dodge and heading to a new place with new kids, new experiences and a chance to become more independent (and damn, have some fun) was JUST what he needed.
There are tons of kids at colleges all across the US just like him. Don’t stress if they are not jumping out of their pants excited about this. They are a bit scared. They are not sure of themselves. They are just kids. Do NOT conclude they can’t do it. But…
3. Keep your options open.
I continued to encourage college as a choice because no other options appealed to him. We told him we would support full time work, military, trade school, community college…anything but sitting in the basement playing video games.
When the other choices didn’t spark much joy either, we chose to keep on the college path. As time went on and his friends started getting more engaged and excited to move forward, so did he. I knew him well enough to know this would be the case. Although they are 18, they are not always on the same mental timeline on the college process as we are.
4. Do not pick a “dream school.“
I truly hate the expression “dream school.” There are eleventy billion schools out there and any one of them could be a good choice. Yes, Duke, Harvard, Vanderbilt, the UC’s, the sub-Ivies…they all sound wonderful and will be great choices for many kids.
But, most won’t get in and for many it’s not worth the time applying. Many of these are stingy with merit aid (if they give it at all) and the need based aid is not what you think it would be. And you know what? Some of the kids who do get in find that it’s not what they pictured. It’s not the fantasy they had. Instead, choose a bunch of schools that could work and don’t focus on any single one being the PERFECT school.
Some may work better financially, some logistically, others academically and some may just have a better overall feel. Don’t overlook small regional gems that you might not have heard of. My oldest ended up at a small Jesuit LAC a few states away which accepts 75% of their students. This is NOT a school typically on anyone’s radar. However, it is very highly ranked regionally for several majors, gives incredible aid to the B student and has a strong alumni network.
Do your research, choose wisely from the beginning and have a variety of affordable schools on the list. Don’t make the mistake of applying to schools far outside of your financial reach, hoping beyond hope that they will throw a lot of money at you. You won’t like how that ends up and neither will your kid.
5. You may not need a college advisor.
There is so much information online and so many others who have done this before. The FAFSA will take most people less than an hour to complete, despite the hand wringing and complaining you read about online. There are some with complicated financial circumstances that require some assistance.
Start early. Read often. Ask friends. Use your guidance counselor. If after all that you decide you’d like to hire an advisor, do it.
6. 18 year olds do not need to have a “passion.”
The words “passion” and “dream school” make me twitchy. My 18yr old’s passion is to watch “The Office” from the beginning for the 8th time and win the soccer state championships. Neither of these things will translate into a meaningful career. Some kids just want to go to school for something they are modestly good at, find a job, work, become self-supporting, have friends, have families and find fun outside of work activities. They just want to be, to participate, to be functional adults.
Instead of “find your passion” I think it’s ok to say “find something you’re pretty good at and make that your work.” If it’s a trade? Awesome…we need tradesmen and women! If it’s a career that requires a degree then go get one. Just always move forward.
7. Don’t be afraid to negotiate this monster cost.
College is expensive. Some colleges are the price of a starter home. If your child is accepted and you want more aid, ask for it. Many (possibly most) schools have a written or verbal appeal process. Some are online forms, some require a face to face meeting, others ask for comparison awards from other schools. It never hurts to ask.
I’ve done it for both of my older kids and got more merit aid for both. I’m now waiting on the answer for the appeal for my third kid.
Very few families pay sticker price and if you pick the right schools from the beginning, you should have the opportunity to bargain a bit. If you are paying and you want to do the bargaining that’s OK. It’s your money. If your kid is paying or you want them involved in this part of the process, I think it’s OK for them to do it as well. Also, be aware that there is a segment of the population that will not struggle to pay for these institutions. No, it’s not always fair, but that’s how the world works.
8. Once you get accepted, choose and pay, there’s more fun to come!
Housing! Class choices! Activities! Roommates! It doesn’t end with the acceptance. There will be much more to navigate once the monkey is off your back…the fun never ends.
As a parent, you need to realize your job of consultant, supporter, listener, advisor and sometimes venting outlet is not over. And sometimes…it doesn’t work out. You try. They try. Everyone tries and it’s not going to happen. There are many reasons why it may not work, too many to list here, and it’s important to keep in mind that you all may need a plan B. They are 18 years old and sometimes they need a redirect and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean anyone failed. It only means there is a fork in the road and it’s time for a new path.
Like I said, I am no expert, just a “been there, done that” veteran parent. On to my 3rd and last kid. Wish me luck!
Amy Baase is mom of 3 adult kids and has weathered the college storm twice, now finishing up with the third this spring. She works as a freelance photojournalist and writer for her local weekly newspaper and other local publications. She lives in Buffalo, NY.