The Problem With the College Application is the Past

I visited a single college, applied, was accepted and matriculated. The reasons for this choice were poor (see below) and there is no question I should have done it differently. With my eldest child, I hit the road and we saw colleges the length of the Eastern Seaboard. Coincidence? Not really.

While the college application should be entirely about our kids, our own history and lingering feelings about past decisions taint the process from beginning to end. At the point when we should look forward it becomes almost impossible not to glance backwards.

College Application: 5 Ways Parents Make it All About Them

None of us wants to believe that we are living through our children; it would be an unfair burden to heap upon them. But speaking only for myself, it was hard to shed all of the past as I helped my kids face their future.

1. This is not a chance to do life over.

A teen’s college application may feel like a chance for a mulligan, a do over of a parent’s life. Sadly, it is not. Late the night before the SAT test, I opened my bedroom window, took the screen off and snuck out with some friends who were neither taking the test, nor going to college. We drove around until the wee hours of the morning for no other reason other than we were sixteen and still young enough to enjoy the deception we had foisted on our parents.

Did my midnight travels impact my score? I am going to guess yes. But honestly I didn’t care. I had already decided where I wanted to go to college based on where my boyfriend had gone. If you are waiting for the part where I say I came to my senses and found a better criteria to select a venue for higher education, it will be a long wait. Or that part where I say, but it was all worth it because the boyfriend and I have four kids and a wonderful life? No, we were teenagers and we broke up.

By the time my kids started to contemplate college, I had a lot of psychological baggage that had been waiting decades to be unpacked. Here was an opportunity for them to right every wrong I had done. My children offered me redemption from some of the abysmal decisions I had made.

Only that wasn’t going to happen. My kid’s lives are theirs, not mine to rent in order to make peace with my past. As proud as I am of anything they may have done or eventually will do with their own lives, it doesn’t change a thing about my past.

2. This is not a chance to reevaluate past parenting.

Watching my kids apply to college was an opportunity to reevaluate every parenting decision I ever made, starting at the very beginning. Why did I have a child in the summer, when research clearly shows the advantage goes to winter babies? Should I have urged them to play an obscure sport as a path to college? Maybe those Tiger Parents knew something? Maybe the Free Range Parents were right? Did I push them too hard or not hard enough? At the point when I was staring down the gun barrel of college applications, this was hardly a fruitful line of thinking.

Helping your teen apply to college may mean letting go of every parenting insecurity you have ever had and making the leap to believing you did the best you could, we all did.

3. This is a chance to reinforce the values taught over the last eighteen years.

At some point in the application process the issue of exaggerating or, at least, rearranging the truth in a more flattering light arises. A college admissions officer is unlikely to know whether a teen did ten or fifteen hours of community service a month. How will they possible verify if a student was in the starting line up of every single basketball game? The painful geyser of insecurity that a college application unleashes brings this issue to the fore.

Admission to college is one of life’s defining moments, the first true step on the path to adulthood and if we give a tacit nod to even the slightest embellishment, we risk negating eighteen long years of teaching, modeling and lecturing about honesty, honor and doing the right thing. The college admissions process gives families a chance to test drive many of the values we have spent nearly two decades inculcating into our kids.

4. Yet our college past and that of their siblings looms large.

All of our kid’s lives they have known where we did or didn’t go to college. Our attitudes about that experience, our views about various colleges (and maybe their football teams!) have seeped into the fabric of our family’s lives. If they have older siblings, they have had a front row seat to watch that process closely, knowing their turn would come. Research has shown that the past choices of older siblings exert a strong influence.

While we would like to think each teen’s college decision is based on their own needs, interests and accomplishments, they enter the process with some fully formed views, and the weight of their family’s past, that can be hard to ignore.

5. In the end, the problem with the college process is the past.

The pain, confusion and frustration of watching your kid apply to college is only partially attributable to this byzantine, impenetrable process. Most of it is a lot simpler.

Your child is leaving and, while you had eighteen years notice and know this is exactly where he/she should be going and you want them to go, it is bringing on a kind of pain you did not think possible. A loud door is slamming and the days of your family living together are almost over. College admission signals the future and requires that parents let go of the past.

Yes, you will grab bits of time on school vacations or summer breaks. But you don’t need me to tell you that one of the most meaningful and profound things that will ever happen to you is coming to an end. So that pain, that confusion, that feeling of overwhelming frustration…it may seem like it’s all about the college application process, but it really all about you.

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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