Dean of Admissions Tells Parents This Is How You Can Really Help Your Teen 

You might think that since I’m a dean of admissions at a university, that my kids’ experience of applying to college would have been friction free. No. Teenage development includes a predictable entanglement of insecurity, overconfidence, risk-taking, and risk-aversion. A college search is fertile ground to test out everyone’s relationship to each of those characteristics.  

The summer before my daughter’s senior year of high school, she didn’t have a solid idea of what she was looking for or where to look. Since I have college admissions experience, I confidently created a list for her. It was a great list, a sampling of all the amazing possibilities that could be hers in the pursuit of college. My major mistake; forgetting my role. 

Here’s what happened to us.

Soule and her two daughters (Photo credit: Whitney Soule)

When we toured schools for my daughter I said nothing

Given my “day job,” my daughter asked me not to talk to anyone while visiting schools. Not in the lobby, not on the tour, not in the parking lot. Nowhere. NOTHING. I’m surprised she even let me out of the car. I said I understood and said nothing to anyone. 

We finished the visit and as we were driving to the next place, I asked her how she felt about the school. She shrugged her shoulders. “But did you like it?” I asked. She looked out the window, “It was fine.” Personally, I thought the whole visit was a win. The campus was beautiful, the tour guide customized the tour route to her interests, and the school had all the things I thought she wanted. All she offered was “fine” and I let it go. 

My daughter seemed uninspired by the colleges we toured

Rinse and repeat. The next school had a beautiful campus and a knowledgeable tour guide who dialed into my daughter’s interests. Afterward, in the car, I cheerfully asked, “Well?” hoping my energy would inspire a positive response. “It was OK.”   

I was getting exasperated. Why didn’t she care? We had a great lineup of schools, and she wasn’t engaging. Were we wasting our time?

“But there must be something you can say about this school that you liked or didn’t like? Anything?”

“It had too many roads.”

I was speechless. The campus was small, in a small town, and while it did have drivable pathways through campus as most campuses do, I didn’t understand the point. It was not busy. Not trafficky. Did we just visit the same place together? We were silent for the rest of our drive.

That night, we arrived in the town for the last school on our list and I suggested that we drive to the campus to figure out where we needed to be first thing in the morning. As we approached, the entire campus was illuminated with…streetlights. “Oh no,” I thought. “She’ll hate it – look at all these roads.

The next morning, she finished the tour, full of bright energy and chirped, “I LOVE IT!” I could not understand what was happening.

But now I do.

There are 3 primary roles in the college admissions process

There are three primary and distinct roles in the college admissions process: the applicant, the parent/guiding adult, and the admissions dean. For some students, there is a fourth role in play–the college counselor. 

Let’s be clear. The applicant is the undisputed star of this show. The applicant will do the applying and will be the one who lives out the educational and personal experiences in the place they enroll.   

The admissions dean (and team) is responsible for their institution’s mission, priorities, and goals. Meeting those expectations is what drives their recruitment and their selection choices. The school college counselor is a professional who has expertise in the broader environment of admission approaches among different kinds of schools and affordability options. 

And there is the applicant’s trusted adult, often a parent, who is emotionally connected and invested in offering support and guidance. 

The hijacking of another’s role really winds up the anxiety

Each of these roles has a unique contribution to the questions, answers, and ‘making sense’ of options. It’s the hijacking of another’s role that really winds up the anxiety. Parents and guiding adults, let’s just say for the sake of an example, are not the applicant, not the college counselor, and not the admissions dean. And yet, parents and guiding adults are often accidental intruders on the other roles, inspired by their own anxiety and their will to create the best possible path forward for the applicant they love.

The guiding adult role includes the blessing of trust and usually a deep understanding of the student’s habits of emotional behaviors, responses to stress, and expressions of joy. And this adult often has insight into these aspects of the student that the student may not fully see or understand about themselves.

Protecting this space for a student to learn, process, react, in their own way, is not only special, but also necessary. As soon as the guiding adult steps into the role of the applicant, the applicant’s agency, ability to discern for themselves, and development of the self-awareness to attach or not to options being presented, becomes less stable.    

During this process for a moment I forgot who my daughter was

Back to my own situation, despite myself, during this process I had forgotten who my daughter was. I had forgotten that she was a kid who retreated to process big thoughts and big emotions.

She was a kid who would take her time behind a closed door or behind her headphones and eventually emerge with a path forward, and maybe a conversation, when she was ready. She was a kid who wouldn’t want her thoughts to be the non-stop focus of my attention for a straight week. 

Instead, I had expected her to be like me, a middle-aged mom who had a mature understanding of the possibilities and the optimistic adventure packed into each of those school options. I had expected her to have confidence in my decades of college admissions work, to believe in the schools I had selected for the trip. 

I failed to give my daughter time and space to manage her thoughts and responses 

I had prioritized my views and my need for her to appreciate my support. I centered my interest in discerning the differences and benefits of each of the schools and the importance of our trip. In doing so, I not only interfered with her ability to discern, I dropped my responsibility to create a safe space for her to manage her thoughts and responses. 

“There are too many roads.”

Dropping that line in the car was my daughter’s masterful move in claiming her space and kicking me out of it. I was speechless. That’s what she intended. 

We laugh about it now. She doesn’t even remember saying it. What she does remember is falling in love with the school that had more “roads” than any other that we visited, graduating from that school, and living her adult life with gratitude for the faculty, friendships, and experiences that continue to positively influence her life. A full success.

More Great Reading:

University of Penn Dean of Admissions: When Your Teen Doesn’t Get In

About Whitney Soule

Whitney Soule is Vice Provost and Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked in college admissions since 1991, at Bates College, Connecticut College, Bowdoin College and now at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her B.A. from Bates College and her Ed.M. from Harvard. She is the co-founder of the CASCO conference for professionals who guide underrepresented and first-generation college students along the path to college preparedness, admission, and enrollment success. She is a frequent speaker on test-optional admissions practices, change management, and designing for equitable and inclusive admissions processes. She has recently served on the Board of Directors for the Enrollment Management Association and the Coalition for College. She serves on the Common Application Board of Directors, on the Enrollment Leader Group for the College Board, and the Advisory Core for the College Board’s Admissions Research Consortium.

Read more posts by Whitney

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