Rick Clark is Assistant Vice Provost and Executive Director of Undergraduate Admission at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also the co-author of The Truth About College Admissions book (2nd edition) and The Truth About College Admission Workbook: A Family Organizer for Your College Search.
Rachel Lockman is a Certified Life Coach specializing in career and life transitions, ADHD, Dyslexia, and grief. She is the founder and CEO of Rachel Lockman Consulting.
While their day-to-day work varies greatly, they view the college admission experience as an opportunity for families to explore together, overcome disappointment, and strengthen their relationships. Here are three challenges Rick sees families commonly face and how Rachel recommends parents support, guide, and navigate the critical transition from parent to partner.
Three challenges in the college search and ways to overcome them
1. Stay Curious and Provide Perspective
Challenge: In articles and presentations, journalists, school counselors, and college representatives describe college admission as a “process.” Searching Google Images for “process” will yield pictures of chemistry experiments, mechanical graphics, or formulas. Few include people, and those displayed are never interacting with others.
When students view college admission as a process, the focus is on precise actions and specific outcomes. Unfortunately, process thinking leads students to believe one bad grade, fifty points “too low” on their SAT, or missing out on roles like captain or president will ruin their chances of being admitted to their “top choice” or “dream school.”
Parents can shift this myopic perspective, helping their students view college admission as an experience. A Google Images search for experience shows people standing in high places looking over their options or celebrating with a group. There is a feeling of vision, freedom, options, and possibility — kind of like, well, college.
Recommendation: Stay curious. By the time students are nearing the end of high school, parents have spent years responding to their needs, accommodating preferences, feeding, sheltering, educating, and loving them. So, shifting from parent to partner will require intention. To flip the script, schedule time and take inventory.
Parents’ thoughtful observations will deepen the relationship and encourage dreams and goals.
- What experiences, conversations, and subjects pique their interest?
- What settings, environments, and physical spaces seem to refresh and excite them?
- How do they handle travel and experiencing new cultures?
- What helps them take on new challenges?
When parents adopt and model an experience versus process mentality, they intend to listen, research, learn, and examine preconceived notions. They focus more on understanding their students’ hopes, goals, and dreams than analyzing the US News and World Report rankings. They communicate their excitement about exploring college options and embrace the uncertain adventure of where the journey will end rather than obsessing about putting a particular university bumper sticker on the car. While a process prioritizes outcome, experience, and relationships.
2. Let Go of the Small Things
Challenge: Any admission dean or college counselor can recount cringe-worthy examples of parents stepping in front of their student at a college fair or campus tour to answer a question or disguising their voice on a call to recover a portal password in an attempt to learn a student’s admission decision. If a parent finds themselves saying things like, “WE are taking the ACT next weekend” or “Our school does not use a weighted GPA,” it may be time to take a walk, breathe deeply, and work to regain what we just described as being so critical — perspective.
One of the most challenging but essential lessons for parents and students in the college admission experience is acknowledging the lack of control over how admission decisions and scholarship offers. Letting go of the small things means using track changes to make comments or suggestions on a student’s essay and serving as an editor rather than having their name effectively be a pseudonym.
It means trusting them to initiate with teachers to write recommendation letters rather than stepping in as a deadline approaches. It means not sending a late-night email to a school counselor or university representative to check on a transcript or document receipt. Yes. These are all actual annual scenarios.
Recommendation: Differentiating roles is critical in preparing students and their relationship with them for college and life beyond. As high school graduation nears, providing students space to think for themselves, handle responsibilities, and build confidence in their decisions is essential.
After years of arranging activities, preparing meals, and washing countless loads of laundry, this is not going to be easy, and it may not feel natural either, but letting go of the small things is critical. Taking stock of what tasks the parents are and which are the students will help release control in the heat of the moment.
Here are some efficient ways to help move towards becoming a partner and prepare students for a smooth college transition:
- Teach them to do their laundry every week.
- Set up a bank account and ensure they can save and spend money.
- Have them plan, shop, and prepare a healthy meal.
- Ensure they are arranging all carpools, schedules, and plans.
Do not expect immediate success with all of these tasks. The point is to allow them to face small challenges and learn from their mistakes while still in high school. However, improving gradually will build their confidence, independence, and invaluable critical thinking, all of which they will need to succeed in college both in and outside the classroom.
3. Prepare for Disappointment
Challenge: Parents of high school students talk with too many parents of other high school students about college admission and too few parents of current college students or recent college graduates.
Parents who have walked this road will be clear — college admission is not fair and cannot be controlled; inequities exist, and some level of disappointment is inevitable. They will recount the kid down the street/ the blue-chip athlete/ the son of a major donor/ (insert unthinkable prototype here) who “got in” when their student did not. They can recall the challenge of comforting their student after being deferred, denied, or waitlisted.
However, they will also confirm momentary setbacks in the college admission experience are merely re-routes, detours, and speed bumps, not dead ends. Invariably, they will excitedly describe how everything worked out for the best. “She did not get into her first choice and ended up at College X, which she loves!”
Recommendation: Understandably, when parents see their students upset or hurt, they want to pull strings, fill out appeal forms, or call on their behalf. Students need to be reminded that admission decisions are not value judgments or predictions of future success (nor are they report cards on parenting acumen).
After students submit their college applications, they will have to wait. Too often, they spend unnecessary energy angsting or speculating about admission decisions they cannot control and never pause to consider how they will handle the results.
- Ask them to visualize the decision moment (similar to athletic training) and various scenarios. Suggest ways they might use their breath, a prayer, or a mantra in preparation for and immediately after receiving college admission news.
- Consider how they have reacted to disappointing information and prepare accordingly. If they tend toward anger, create a safe place to let off steam. If activity is their go-to outlet, have running shoes nearby. If they typically cry and go numb, place comforting pillows and warm blankets in the room if needed.
- Allow them time to process admission decisions and regain emotional balance. Resist the urge to act or attempt to fix, and offer a supportive presence, “I can see how tough this is for you, and I know you can get through it.”
- When they are ready, discuss some of your past disappointments and how you ultimately persisted or grew.
- Provide perspective and build their stamina by focusing on their strengths and reiterating their long-term goals, all remaining viable.
Ultimately, in moments of disappointment in the college admission experience, students need from parents what they will ultimately need when things do not go their way in college— unequivocal support and unconditional love.
We know none of this is easy, but we hope you will see the college admission experience as an opportunity to build lasting emotional agility, reinforce trust, and begin the invaluable transition from parent to partner.