It’s the kind of the stress that hovers in the background for years, then explodes once your son or daughter hits high school. Most kids in elementary school can recall hearing their parents discuss college expectations for their children.
By senior year, some kids get so upset with the college application process that they stay home from school for a week or more at a time, exhausted. Family life can be captured in just one word: tense.
Is it possible to zap all stress from the college application process? Probably not. Some of it is inevitable. According to Washington, DC-area educational consultant Brie Jeweler-Bentz, writing in the September 2009 issue of Washington Parent, your goal as a parent during the application process should not be to eradicate all stress but to make sure its levels are manageable.
Part of the pressure that students encounter on their way to a college or university comes from the shift of perception about classes that even a decade ago were considered bonus points on a transcript. While taking an Advanced Placement (AP) class or two used to make a student stand out from others with a similar grade point average, test scores and activities, at many schools, it’s now expected of anyone seeking admission. As a result, a student enrolled in AP classes or an international baccalaureate program also has the stress of the class workload to handle.
Here are four steps parents and teens can take to control stress while they fill out college and financial aid applications:
1. Have a family powwow. Get the family to sit down together and discuss expectations, limitation and options before your child completes a single application. You are in effect heading stress off at the pass. You might also be preventing heartbreak later if your son or daughter wants to go to a school across the country or to attend one with costs way beyond your bank account. Unless you spell it out, your child might not have a clue that you have no intention of letting him or her go to this university. In addition to a lot of stress when your teen figures it out, the family will have wasted funds on any application fees.
2. Keep an open mind. There are 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. While you or your spouse might have a favorite or two, it’s wise to remain open to possibilities. You should encourage your son or daughter to be happy at any of the schools on the application list. It’s both unwise and very stressful to pin all hopes on just one college.
3. Treat the application process as a project. Making a timeline and posting it in a conspicuous spot at home is a great idea. Break down the process just as you would any major project. Start early and identify each step and the date by which it must be completed. Jeweler-Benz recommends using the summer before the senior year of high school as an ideal time to complete college applications and draft related essays.
4. Create a contingency plan. While it might seem a remote possibility when your student makes the honor roll each term, it’s possible that no acceptance letters might land in the family mailbox. Identify potential alternatives such as working or volunteering, taking a gap year and enrolling in community college classes. Adding any one of these to the next round of applications will give your student a better chance of getting an acceptance letter. During times of economic uncertainty, it’s also a good idea to develop a plan of what would happen if you or your spouse ended up without an income for an extended period of time.
While so much of the college application process is automated these days, it still has a chilling effect on some students. Failure to get their first-choice school for some feels as serious as getting jilted at the altar. By accepting that some stress is necessary and then helping your child manage it effectively, you will avoid a lot of potential distress for your whole family.