Why a College Decision Has to Be Your Teen’s Choice, Not Yours

My daughter texted me this morning to say she feels old.

She’s an 18-year-old college freshman. Seeing the “prospies” on campus with their parents made her feel like she has entered another phase of her life. Next year’s crop, the prospective students of the class of 2022, those kids are still tethered.

It was a rough journey to get to this glorious day where she sees herself as a wise and independent adult. At times, it was more difficult for me than for her.

Although it’s been a year since we went through the college admissions process, the stress it caused is still a fresh wound. I was used to making choices for her and I thought I knew what was best.

Our college search began the summer between my daughter’s ninth and 10th grade years. It was much too early to be seriously looking, but we had friends from our neighborhood in San Diego who had just relocated to the East Coast. It seemed like a great opportunity to combine a visit to them with a few campus tours.

My daughter was picky. The first college we visited was too southern and rural for her. The second one was too urban. Others had too many cars and busy streets running through them, or the buildings were too tall or too modern.  Sometimes the town was too sleepy, or the campus was too far from a city.

Why seniors need to make their own college decision

But then we visited the perfect college – to me anyway.

I had been warned not to fall in love, but I couldn’t help myself. “We meet your family’s demonstrated financial need,” the admissions officer told us.

“All classes are taught by professors, not graduate students.”

“It’s a vibrant community with residential colleges that feel like home and become like family.”

The campus was gorgeous, leafy, not too big or too small. Everyone we passed seemed to know our cheerful tour guide that summer day.

As my daughter’s high school years went on, the campus I fell in love with that first summer stayed on the top of my list. It had everything: small class sizes, the major she was interested in, a focus on undergraduates, prestige, a fully funded gap year, an amazing alumni network and a location in a beautiful small town with easy train access to a big city. I reminded her of its perfection often. She remained unimpressed. I interpreted that as a self-defense mechanism that would protect her from disappointment if she wasn’t admitted. But she had worked hard to earn the grades and test scores, so I continued to dream – for her.

When it came time to make the final list, we filtered her choices by cost. She couldn’t apply to a school that our family could not afford. We ran the numbers based on the calculator found on each college website.

During fall of her senior year, she attended some fly-in programs which offer hosted overnight stays and class visits.  She came home smitten by a small liberal arts college close to home. Still, I urged her to be strategic with her one shot at single-choice early action admission and she dutifully used it to apply to my favorite school, since it was the most selective of the nine colleges she applied to.

Pushing her towards what I thought was perfect was alienating her from me. Prestige wasn’t what she wanted and she wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being so far from home.

She was accepted at both her first choice liberal arts college and the university I fell in love with. We went to the admitted student weekend at both campuses because, even though I knew she had pretty much made up her mind, I just wanted her to give my choice a fair shot. When we were there, I could clearly see her heart wasn’t in it.

The admission officer told us that they don’t make mistakes, she was chosen on purpose, for the many qualities she had spelled out so well in her essays. Offers of admission are a bit like marriage proposals. Ultimately, I could not force my daughter into this arranged marriage. I had to let her choose her own path.

Nearing the end of her freshman year, she says she is as happy as she could possibly be, her college is perfect for her. She is on her own and she is thriving. And that is all I wanted.

Why your senior has to make the college decision

So, parents of the class of 2022 embarking on admitted student college visits: enjoy the wine and cheese. Bask in the glory. Take photos. Your student earned this. This is your parenting victory lap. But let them choose.

It’s taken a year for my relationship with my daughter to recover from the college admissions process. As I watch from the sidelines this year, I can see the stress my friend’s children are enduring. For some, it’s because they weren’t admitted to the school they really want to attend. Their hopes are still pinned on a waitlist. For others, the numbers don’t add up. They didn’t get the financial aid they need to make it possible to attend the school they prefer.

For my daughter, I was both her biggest champion and the greatest obstacle she had to overcome. I’ve got a son in 9th grade who is very lucky he’s not the eldest, I’ve learned my lesson.


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Christie Ritter is a freelance writer and college journalism instructor. Before becoming a mother to a daughter, now 18, and a son, now 14, she was a staff writer at the San Diego Union-Tribune and North County Times. She is the author of four books. Follow her @swisscritter






About Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer and Lecturer in Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. Before becoming a mother to a daughter and a son, she was a staff writer at the San Diego Union-Tribune and North County Times. She is the author of four books. Follow her @swisscritter

Read more posts by Christie

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