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Two decades as a school counselor guiding parents and their children through the college admission experience should have prepared me for this moment, right? I have comforted crying, absorbed anger, shared snickering, opened opportunities, silenced shouting, and diverted disaster. In fact, with a fellow father, Georgia Tech admission director, Rick Clark, I literally wrote the book on how families can stay together as they enjoy the admission experience — applying to college in an intentional, meaningful, and successful way. But it is not as easy as it seemed from the cheap seats.

As my oldest turns 16, gets his first job, learns to drive, and prepares to start his junior year in high school, suddenly this is real. His independence is palpable and his future inches closer as he outgrows me in height and reliance. Reflexively I begin to obsess, and everything I have advised to others seems inapplicable. How can I orchestrate this experience so it ends well? How can I control what I know is best for him? How can I protect him from wrong decisions? How can I position him to look good to colleges? What I should be asking, however, is how can I avoid being a fool?

My own counsel

You might have heard one of the following versions of an old adage: 

“He who treats himself has a fool for a patient.” 

“She who serves as her own lawyer has a fool for a client.” 

“He that teaches himself has a fool as his instructor.”

Am I foolish to think I can counsel my son (and then my daughter) through this process? Time will tell, and so will I. Over the next year and a half, this series of reflections, “The College Admission Fool,” will chronicle my parenting missteps, successes, and undoubted hilarity. Meanwhile, I will share what I know to be true from working with hundreds of families at this time of transition. I will invite my colleagues in school counseling and college admission to offer their insight to readers, and ask fellow parents and their children to share what does and doesn’t work. Stories and anecdotes will complement practical recommendations for how to “sur-thrive” (thrive while surviving) this experience.

When to begin

One of the most common questions I hear from families is: “When should we start the college search?” As with many aspects of admission, the answer is unsatisfying: “It depends.” To suggest one universal response would be like telling a new parent when their toddler should walk. They will do so when they are ready, but for certain, there are ways we can encourage and support their development. Here are a few recommendations for my fellow parents and caregivers:

  • Consider the context: In admission, context is everything. Just like colleges assess applicants within their environment and the opportunities they have or have not had, the question of timing is dependent upon your unique circumstances. My son attends a school where 100% of students continue to four-year colleges and universities. If anything, the conversations about admission start prematurely and the pressure around college can quickly grow out of control. This reality, along with the fact that I am “in the business,” has me biting my tongue. If your child is in a school where there is not as much of a college-going culture, or perhaps they are the first in your family to be college-bound, then these conversations about life after high school might need to begin earlier. At the latest, I recommend that your child meets with their school counselor by the winter or the spring of junior year to discuss post-secondary planning.
  • Review your relationship: Every parent has a different type of connection with their child, and it is forever changing. Before you start conversations about college, think about the dynamics between you and your student. How will they react to your prodding? Will they embrace the opposite of anything you suggest? Are they eager for your involvement, or resistant? In other words, know your audience and respond accordingly. You might need to let go more than you want to or you might need to handhold in ways you wish you didn’t have to. Talk about this openly with your student before you launch into the college search.
  • Offer the opportunity: Our job as parents is to create space for our children to grow and let them know that we are here to support them. College admission is no different. If we are able, we can expose them to different types of schools through visits or by encouraging them to engage virtually. We can offer to connect our children with friends and relatives who have attended college and we can try to involve them in community programs that might support college aspirations. At some point, however, as the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” 
  • Initial Ideas: If you want to ease into the college admission process, you might start with some low risk, low intensity approaches. If you are traveling or have colleges and universities close to your home, consider driving/walking through campus, or even doing a tour and information session, if available. It is a good way to introduce your student to a range of possibilities without expectations or pressure. Earlier in high school can also be a good time for students to participate in a job shadow. They can begin to understand what different careers entail, and what they might need to do after high school to achieve their goals.
  • Control your concern: There is no question that college admission can be anxiety-producing. The fears that we have for our children, and their well-being, can end up getting funneled into this one process that we mistakenly feel we can control. News flash: We cannot control the future, but we can manage our emotions and how we deal with our angst. We need to be upfront with our children about our concerns, but not saddle them with our worry — it is a fine line and one about which we need to constantly be aware. By recognizing the true source of our anxiety, we will be better equipped to offer support and not neurosis. Consider finding a parent who has been through this experience before to turn to when you need a reality check.
  • Listen and learn: Sometimes the best thing we can do as parents is — as my mother was fond of saying — “Zip it”! My son and I like to go on walks, and this is when he opens up the most. Instead of constantly initiating conversations about college, I simply listen to what is on his mind. Occasionally discussion does lead to life after high school. When it does, we are talking about it because he wants to and not due to my obsession. Sometimes what we think is best for our children might not be, or the timing is bad. I have learned more about being a parent from simply allowing my children to rattle on in a stream of consciousness than peppering them with questions.

Now that question of when to begin is as clear as mud, stay tuned for the next installment of The Admission Fool and a discussion of where and how to begin. In the meantime, hopefully, we can find joy in our foolishness and trust in our best intentions as parents.

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