What This Mom Learned the Hard Way About College Applications

I have survived the college applications and acceptance process three times now! My three kids are completely different students/individuals/goals and all chose different schools. I can honestly say each and every process was as different as each child, HOWEVER, there are enough common denominators that I can share what I have learned and hope it helps others!

10 pieces of advice about college applications

According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 11.5 million of the 11.6 million new jobs created since the 2007-2009 recession have gone to workers with at least some post-secondary education. Jobs going to those with a HS diploma or less account for less than 80,000 new jobs.

1) Most kids “think” they know what they want and don’t need any help or direction from parental units.

It is well worth the fight to be involved in this process. Start freshman year and visit campus here and there as part of a vacation or sporting event. Go see cousins or older friends in college or by whatever means necessary to start planting seeds. I find myself constantly saying to my 9th and 7th grade children,”what do you think of that job? You could do that, it would require such and such.” Do not let your child make a decision based on ignorance, arrogance or peer pressure.

[More on Why Parents Need to Help Their Kids Make College Decisions Here.]

2) Do not let a negative High School experience set the tone for future plans.

I have a son who struggles with Dyslexia, anxiety, and experienced terrible bullying in high school by students and teachers. He was convinced by senior year his future was of more failure. I actually applied to a university that had his intended major, support for students with LD, and rolling admissions, the January of senior year without telling him (no essays were needed). My thought at the time was if he is not accepted he will never know, but when he was accepted the look on his face was priceless! He LOVES college and is now a 3rd year student talking about grad school.

Some will scream “Helicopter parent” at this, what I can tell you is this child had a plan for community college because he had absolutely no confidence in himself or his future thanks to such negative high school input. (This is not a dig at community college. This child was just convinced he could never live outside mom and dad’s home!)

He could not even have a conversation about going away to college during this time without getting emotional. What I did forced his hand and he thanks me almost daily for it now as he cannot imagine his life if he had not taken the step to go away to school. So go ahead and call me any name you like… sometimes as parents we step out in faith to push our kids to reach their potential.

3) Do think outside the box if you have a student who is “non-traditional”.

Research trade schools, community colleges, universities with programs for students who need extra help and for those on the other side of the spectrum: schools that offer six-year doctorate programs or five-year master programs combined with the bachelor degree.

4) Do not think your teen has the emotional energy to do all the leg work and research into schools (especially if they are busy with AP, duel credit courses and other activities so they look attractive to schools.)

Spend time narrowing down that list for them once they have figured out if they prefer an urban, rural, suburban campus and size of campus. If they have a major in mind this information as well as budget and if they are interested in a sport can also be used to cut down the list before they start on their college applications.

[More on Why the College Process is Harder Now]

5) Some kids “just know” where they want to go and what they want to major in and have it all mapped out.

I have son who decided in middle school he wanted to go to University of Illinois for Engineering and he is now a second year student there (junior by hours.) We did make him look at other schools and apply to other schools. He turned down more money from other programs but his heart was at Illinois and he is thriving there….he wanted a nationally ranked program and he has found himself greatly challenged but loving every moment. In hindsight I would have had him apply to fewer “back-up” schools than he did because each application even using the common app online can be costly and time-consuming.

6) Review every college application no matter the fight it may require!

The same son above was warned by Illinois engineering admissions that everyone who applies is academically strong so not to make silly errors on essays….they will provide entertainment to the admissions department and end up part of every tour story and you will not get in.

This same son left one essay blank,” where do you see yourself five years after graduating with your degree?” to think about and return too later. We reviewed his other essays and made him redo them reminding him they don’t want to hear how you talk but read how you think.

Exhausted from that he declared his application complete and submitted it….and oops never went back and finished the question he left blank! REVIEW those applications parents!

7) Remember it truly does not matter the name of the school the child attends if it is not the right fit!

We ask the same of all our kids ….make good choices, be kind to everyone, have grit (perseverance to work toward a goal long-term,) trust God to set your path, work hard! “Hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard.”

8) Know your school college guidance counselor and make sure your child does as well.

Make sure they follow-up and check in. We had one counselor who failed to get transcripts and scores to schools before the college applications deadline!

[More on When It’s Time for your Child to Decide on a College here.]

9) Do have your child start a resume of activities, specific details of community service and involvement, honors/awards during freshman year.

Keeping an open document that the student adds to makes those college applications much easier when the time arrives! If we had not done this, my daughter would have not been able to show her 100 plus hours of community service on her application to a six-year doctorate of Physical Therapy application or had her resume ready for college coaches when asked.

10) Lastly, when seeking teacher recommendations ask kindly and provide a resume (see above) and list of things they may not know about your student…passions, character strengths, long-term goals, life experiences.

Provide them this so they can use it to round out the letters. Be sure to remind your child to send a thank you once they have sent in your recommendation and update them on any acceptances or scholarship awards.

Bonus: Every student is assigned an admissions counselor at every university.

It has taken me time to figure this out, but have your student especially make an effort to develop a relationship with this person. It can help make them more than a number and also serve as a look into the university for your student! i.e. if the counselor is too busy for your student this may carry over into their whole experience, but if they get to know your student personally this also may speak volumes to your student’s college experience at this school!

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Jennifer Garner, mother of five children, is married to her college sweetheart and lives in Illinois, about 40 mins from St Louis. She has two boys in college, a senior in high school committed to play college soccer at a D2 school, and a 9th grader and 7th grader.  Jennifer has a degree in Elementary Education from Miami University, but has spent most of her teaching career at home. “Let’s be honest mothering is teaching!”

She has homeschooled, public and private schooled her children during different phases and has learned there is “no such thing as the perfect school.” Her full-time job is currently keeping the color coded google calendar updated, nagging everyone including the husband, and sending encouraging words to those she loves!

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