4 Things No One Told Me Before My Oldest Applied to College

By all indicators, my son, Will and I were both as prepared as we could be for him to apply to college. He knew what he wanted to study, which made creating a list of choices easy. He also had the start to a compelling essay written.

While he focused on his ongoing science research and studying for classes, I made a spreadsheet that tracked due dates, requirements and if schools would accept his numerous AP credits. We toured schools, he narrowed the list and I paid the application fees as they came up.

Everything was going as well as it could be…until it wasn’t.

The college application process is the beginning of a separation between you and your teen. While I was never a helicopter parent, swooping in, I did have a friendly relationship with his guidance counselor, teachers and coaches.

I was present and tuned in, but stood back for my son to manage his own academic and sports in high school. Even so, it was pretty jarring when the application process began.

There are things no one told me before my oldest applied to college (Photo credit: Sarah Walker Caron)

4 unexpected things I learned along the college application journey

1. Once submitted, the CSS Profile is hard to change.

There’s no easy way to say this: My son got his birthdate wrong on his CSS Profile and submitted it. It makes me laugh now, but at the time it was pretty rough.

It was a slip of the finger that had been exasperated by an accidental submission of the form while Will was trying to get my ex-husband to fill out the non-custodial parent section. The CSS Profile requires both parents to fill out financial data, regardless of whether both parents are contributing to paying for college. 

After the accidental submission, we looked for a way to correct it. After online avenues failed, I had to wait until business hours to phone the College Board and then spent hours on hold only to find out that even though it was less than a day later, we’d have to contact each school individually to correct it. The data had already been sent.

2. From application on, the school only communicates with the student

One of the things I began to notice during the CSS Profile debacle was that the schools needed Will to make the request in writing himself. As the applicant, only he could do so. Likewise, all communications from the schools he applied to went only to him.

This was an abrupt change that I wasn’t expecting (though it makes sense). While his high school was still sending everything to me, his college communications began the shift to independence. And since neither he nor I was expecting it, it took us a bit to find a groove. He assumed I received everything he did. I assumed he wasn’t receiving anything.

Now I ask him about grades and he forwards me emails he thinks are important.

3. The first few months are rough

Ok, I did expect this. But not quite in the way it was. After dropping my son off to college, my daughter and I drove back to our home in Maine. It was strange leaving him in a city so far away and even stranger coming home to a quieter house. 

For awhile, the flow of our home was disrupted. I struggled with how to cook for two instead of three (it’s a bigger shift than you might think!). We weren’t sure where to have dinner (the table felt so massive) or what to watch together. 

Eventually though, we figured it all out. My meat farmer sold me tiny portions of beef when he had them for tacos for two. We started watching Gilmore Girls together. And we both talked to my son regularly. 

4. Everyone will want you to be sad (but you don’t have to be)

The head tilt. The softening of the voice. The concerned questions. It drove me nuts. After I dropped my son off at college, it felt like everyone seemed to want me to be sad. They asked how much I cried dropping him off (I didn’t). They asked if he was homesick. But none of that was true for us.

When I left my son at college, I was content — happy that my son was in a place he wanted to be. And for his part, he settled in easily and quickly. He made friends, explored his new city and eagerly went to class and his work-study job. 

My daughter and I visited for family weekend in September and we had so much fun with him and his new roommate. In October, his high school friends flew down over a long weekend to hang out. In November, he came home for Thanksgiving — a luxurious weeklong break for his school. And in December, winter break started. Nowhere along the way was I sad about it — I was grateful that he was happy.

College admissions is the first step toward real independence

The college application process begins a severing of the parent-forward dynamic of elementary and secondary school. And it begins the process of a teen becoming a young adult.

When they are away at school, they get to choose when and what they eat, where they go and who they spend time with. But, as jarring as it can be, it’s also good and healthy.

My son has just finished his freshman year of college. My daughter will begin the application process in a few months. As apprehensive as I am about becoming an empty nester, I know it will all be okay. That’s probably the biggest lesson of all.

More Great Reading:

This Video Explains Everything About Being Lonely Freshman Year

College Admissions: Grown and Flown – affordable college guidance and community with admissions experts.

About Sarah Walker Caron

Sarah Walker Caron is a writer, editor and author. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, SheKnows, The Girlfriend, Motherwell and other publications. She is also the author of nine books including The Disney Princess Tea Parties Cookbook and Classic Diners of Maine. She teaches journalism at the University of Maine and Husson University. Based in Maine, she's a single mother to two awesome kids.

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