My Four Kids Went Through the College Application Process: What I Learned

When you have four children, you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll have four different experiences for every situation. Somehow, at first, I didn’t appreciate that this fundamental truth would also apply to the college application process. After all, I knew what I knew; my children’s father and I had taken a pretty linear approach to our college careers — we graduated from high school, went on to college, and then to law school. Our paths were pretty direct. 

As parents to teens, though, we soon realized that what worked for us wouldn’t necessarily, nor should it, for our kids. The college application process, in addition to being a learning experience for us all in a technical sense, would become more of a journey of self-exploration for our family.

We would learn how adept our children were at managing stress, being introspective about what they wanted out of their lives, how skilled they were at communicating their wishes to us, and, perhaps most significantly, how open to listening to them we were. 

The application process was a time I wouldn’t want to live through again but strangely miss, now that my kids are all in their twenties and where they’re supposed to be.

The college process led two of the author’s children NOT to choose to attend college but, instead, pursue a military path. (Photo credit: Elise Buie, Esq.)

7 things I learned about the college application process

I’ll start here: the college application wasn’t like this when I was a kid. I mean, seriously, I used a typewriter to complete my applications. There was no Common App. No Naviance. Just a Barron’s book and a few chats with the guidance counselor during school hours. This? This process today? It’s mind-boggling, which is why I learned fast that micromanaging the process would get me nowhere.

1. Your teen knows more than you do 

Maybe it’s because I’m “old.” Maybe because I’m not a techie and know when to let someone else take the computer reigns. Whatever the reason, I got the memo that my teens knew more about the college admissions process than either (1) they let on that they did and (2) I gave them credit. Like anything else, when a person, including my children, was motivated, they did their homework.

2. Teens know what they want and what’s good for them more than you think

So when a teen isn’t “into” the college application process, the beginning of this next step in their evolution, not just their education, take heed. Ask them, “Hey, what’s up? Is everything OK? How are you feeling about the college application process? Is there anything you’d like to talk about because I’m always here to listen.” 

These are important questions to ask because it might very well be that your child is excited about what’s to come but is also really nervous, understandably.

3. Your teen’s already stressed enough

Don’t ratchet up the stress more by burdening them with your vision of their future. As I said earlier, your teens, as did mine, had a very strong picture of what they wanted, and, unknown to me at the time, college wasn’t one hundred percent part of that plan for all of my kids. As it stood, I sent one off to college to play football, but after one semester, he told me he’d be much happier enlisting and becoming a Marine. So, he did. 

He found his passion, and no, it didn’t include a college degree, at least for now. The same was true for his younger brother, who realized he’d be much happier using his self-taught technical skills elsewhere after starting an engineering program. 

These are expensive lessons to learn once you’ve paid admission and room and board for a teen who isn’t sure, so begin having those conversations before you start.

4. College is super expensive

Long before you begin paying for tuition, room and board, books, and travel expenses, you’ll find that the entire college application process, from start to finish, is pricey. Even more so if you hire a private college advisor who, by the way, doesn’t know your teen like you do or how your teen knows themself. Even if you hire the best, most well-intentioned private college advisor, keep in mind that they cannot know what your child or you, for that matter, aren’t telling them. They’re not mind readers or fortune tellers, after all.

5. Your child will wind up where they belong (at least right now)

Yes, that’s right. You, me, our teens, we all live in the present. Not the past. Not the future. The situation we’re in and the circumstances we have are what we have to work with right now. Remember, the college application process is a time for exploration, not absolutes.

6. If the college your teen chooses turns out not to be a good fit, transferring can be an option

I’ve met many parents of kids who got to their dream school, and it wasn’t what they hoped for or expected. Or the school was, but socially, they didn’t find their way. So they gave the college application process another look, decided to give transferring a go, and had an entirely different experience the second time. 

Life lesson: our choices don’t always work out, and figuring out how to bounce will undoubtedly be one of the most important lessons a person can learn. And, shock of all shocks, it’s a lesson that isn’t learned in a classroom.

7. Gap years are wonderful opportunities for growth  

Gap years have become more popular than they were when I was growing up, and I wish they had been. Having the opportunity to explore the country, travel abroad, work, and find your passion becomes more challenging as you go through life having heavy obligations: a spouse, children, a mortgage, bills, a demanding job, and pets.

Not until you are an empty nester and retired will you know such freedom again, but it won’t be the same; you’ll look at your newfound freedom with a different set of eyes. This isn’t bad, but it is different from having a world of experiences in front of you as you move into adulthood.

8. College is only one stop on your teen’s path to adulthood

Neither college admissions nor a college degree can make you an adult. Tuning 18 won’t do it either. However, learning to advocate for yourself and make decisions that serve you will help. 

With all of its twists and turns, the college application process can give your child their first glimpse at independence if you allow it to. 

Letting go of your child is part of your learning, too. The best part of the college application process is the opportunity you and your child have before you to learn about yourselves. 

More Great Reading:

High School Teacher Says Stop Constant College Admissions Talk

About Elise Buie

Elise Buie is a Seattle divorce and family lawyer and founder of ​Elise Buie Family Law Group​, a law firm devoted to divorce and family law and estate planning​. A survivor of Hurricane Katrina, her own divorce, and many dish-filled sinks piled high after lively family dinners with her husband, Doug, and their blended family of six (six!) 20-somethings, Elise knows firsthand what it means to juggle work and parenting, finding balance in between, even if it means a lot of late nights. When she’s not advocating for her clients, the best interests of their children, and civility in divorce, you can find her sailing on Puget Sound.

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