College admission decisions are starting to roll in, and with them the full array of emotions. Hope, excitement, anxiety, fear, dread, and insecurity.
Every student is approaching this process from a different place. Some already have an acceptance or two in their back pocket, so it is mostly excitement to see what other choices present themselves. Others are in the thick of the waiting game, knowing their fate is still in the hands of an anonymous admissions committee. Some already know they will attend their local community college or have elected non-college trajectories but hold the same normative fear of “what will my post-high-school life look like?” No matter what your child’s circumstance is right now, it is almost certainly one of uncertainty mixed with anticipation in a sea of social comparison.
My high school senior came home after school yesterday just overwhelmed with anxiety and righteous indignation. A classmate had initiated what I call the dreaded-college-comparison-conversation. You know the one – one kid starts asking all the questions that really shouldn’t be asked publicly: Did you get into X school? Did you apply to Y school? What’s your top choice? These questions are almost always accompanied by Well, I got into Z school in the age-old high school game of social and academic one-upmanship.
In my daughter’s situation, these questions were pelted at her in front of multiple other kids. It brought up school anxiety, social anxiety, self-doubt, and frustration. And as she told me the story, it reminded me of all we can do as parents to support our high school seniors during this challenging time.
One high school senior recently told me: “As someone with an older sister at a competitive school, the stress of holding up to that standard, no matter how loving my family is, never fully fades.”
All high school seniors will tell you they are tired of adults asking “What are you doing after graduation?”
Our seniors are smart, and ambitious, and going places. They are also friends, athletes, artists, siblings, readers, musicians, passionate about political issues, or obsessed with TikTok. They are thinking about graduation/college/life after high school, but they are also thinking about the text from their friend today, the math test tomorrow, the track meet this weekend, and prom in a couple of months. They are multifaceted humans, and they have other things in their lives both right now and in their futures than their college or career choices. When we fail to ask them about these other facets of their lives, we reinforce the message that they are nothing but their accomplishments or plans. Take time to enjoy your seniors, and to be curious about what else is going on for them right now.
Another senior disclosed: “I’m currently in that awkward waiting period after I’ve submitted all my college applications but before I’ve heard back. It’s quite anxiety-inducing. All I can do is wait and try to not stress about it obsessively.”
We can help our teens not stress about college obsessively by not stressing about it obsessively ourselves! Try not to ask daily if they’ve checked their email or portals, or which of their friends has heard from which schools, or what they will choose if they get into X, Y, or Z sets of schools…try to model that you can patiently wait for all this to play out. When we model that patience, we are subtly communicating that this is NOT actually the only or most important thing going on right now. That they are NOT simply their college choices or plans. Trust me, they are anxious enough without us reminding them to be anxious!
Another senior told me: “I struggled to preserve my sense of self-worth and belonging during my college process. I was constantly reminded to temper my expectations to protect myself from huge disappointments; I lost a great deal of self-confidence by thinking repeatedly that I couldn't measure up against my peers or the tens of thousands of strangers vying for admission. Even after I was accepted to my dream school, I couldn't shake the feeling that somehow I wasn't good enough.”
I love this quote because of its incredible insight about the effects of both too much pressure and too much caution. While clearly we don’t want our kids to think they are nothing more than their post-high-school plans, we also don’t want them to practice the art of not dreaming or aiming high. In the current crazy competitive climate for college admissions, it seems logical to help our kids temper their expectations to avoid disappointment. It is one thing to say “You know, you might need to prepare yourself to not get into X school. Things are really competitive these days” and another altogether to say “YOU are amazing. YOU are smart and interesting and will do well in lots of environments. It might be X dream school or it might be Y school, but I know you will figure out how to be happy and successful.”
The first has the gloss of wanting to protect our kids from disappointment but subtly conveys they may not actually be good enough to get in or be successful. The second reminds our kids that they are way more than whatever happens next, and that they hold the keys to their own success.
When the system seems so unwieldy – so many applicants, so many choices, so many variables we can’t control – it can be easy to let anxiety and lack of control take over. But when you let go of trying to trust the process and instead trust in your kid, and in yourself as their parent, you get a little of that control back. Remember that your kid is so much more than this college admission process!