How to Keep a Happy Household During Your Teen’s College Search
By Blythe Butler
1. Host your own college nights.
Designate one night per week as College Night, and make his college search the topic of dinnertime conversation. Check on his essay topic, remind him to send his test scores, see if he’s met with his college counselor. Ask all the questions you’ve been dying to ask, but only do it once a week. This will help keep both of you from getting so wrapped up in applying to college that he forgets to do his homework or enjoy his senior year, and allows him some space from feeling badgered. (Even when you’re just giving nice, timely reminders, it can feel like badgering to a teenager when he’s in that JUST LEAVE ME ALONE WITH MY NOISE-CANCELING HEADPHONES AND THE LATEST VAMPIRE WEEKEND ALBUM DUDE place.)
2. Keep it in the family.
Don’t talk too much about her college search with your friends and extended family. She’s feeling enough pressure from her teachers, friends, the mailman who keeps making cracks about the glossy brochures he shoves through the mail slot every day, and those US News & World Report lists that stare her in the face every time she walks past the college counseling office at school. If you’re proud that she’s been admitted to her dream school, or worried that her grades won’t be up to snuff, find someone–a spouse or one trusted friend–to talk with about it, but don’t make it cocktail party conversation. She doesn’t need any more scrutiny than she’s already under.
3. Help them own it.
And I don’t mean it in the Tyra Banks/Miss J. sense. Remind your child (and yourself) that he’s the one going to college so his name should be on the mailing lists (What kid doesn’t love to get mail?), he should fill out the application forms, and he should call to make sure his transcript arrived. The more ownership he takes early in the process, the further down the road he’ll be to considering his options and making a good college choice. Colleges will also be more sympathetic when he calls to apologize for forgetting to sign the back of his application than if they get a call from his mom saying she forgot to remind him to do it.
4. Be honest.
Be clear yet supportive from the beginning. Let her know that you’ll back her up in any way you can – accompanying her to visit colleges, helping her find a summer job to cover tuition, filling out financial aid forms, or working together on a master calendar of application deadlines. But don’t hide that you can’t help her financially, or that you’ll only be willing to support her if she attends a college within driving distance or with a religious affiliation. She should be aware of your guidelines (shared in a supportive way, of course) BEFORE she falls in love with that anarchist university in Aruba that offers no financial aid. (Did I mention that you should be supportive?)
5. Keep an open mind.
There are thousands (literally, THOUSANDS) of colleges out there, and most of them are intellectually stimulating, exciting places with smart students and inspiring teachers and staffs of people just dying to think up fun things to do on the weekends. Do your best to remind yourself (and your kid, because the time will come, if it hasn’t already, when he will forget this) that where he goes to college is not going to mean the difference between a wildly successful or deeply unfulfilling life. It’s his own attitude and curiosity that will go the furthest in making his college experience a great one. That, and his fortitude to withstand cafeteria cuisine.
Blythe Butler is the former associate dean of admissions at a selective liberal arts college. She, along with her 18-month-old son, is rediscovering the delights of Sesame Street after living abroad for the past three years.
Published October 20, 2008. Last updated July 9, 2018.