Simplifying the College Process for Your Teen: Important Tips to Avoid Feeling Overwhelmed

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Guest post by Jess Foster

The college process is one of the most daunting tasks for a student, not to mention the student’s family. The looming idea of The Future is one that leaves many in a panic working to figure it all out along with life hacks to get into the best college and succeed. Though it is a huge moment in a person’s life, it doesn’t have to be stressful.

The following tips aren’t sanctioned by admissions counselors (I didn’t ask), but after spending an admissions season reading applications to the work I do with high schoolers now, there are concepts I hope put the process in manageable perspective. The guiding principle: planning college prospects shouldn’t be something students conform their lives around. Rather, it should be a step that naturally builds upon their life ambitions.

Tour early. Get a sense of what your child wants in a school. This should be a mix of what makes them feel comfortable and also what helps them grow. Sophomore and Junior years are typical times for this but earlier is never bad. Though what they want might change, ideas of what they levitate towards will start to form.

Take appropriately challenging classes. “Appropriately” and “Challenging” need each other equally in this phrase. Students can take classes that require little work, but if they don’t present challenge then the student won’t learn much. Though it’s tempting, skills they miss out on in an easy class are hard to catch up on later.

“Appropriately” is just as important. I see students fill their roster with classes that will look impressive to colleges, not keeping in mind what they can realistically achieve. While a stretch in a couple areas can be appropriate, colleges are not impressed by failing grades. Even if a student does manage to get by in a class, it can come at the cost of emotional well-being. Help them choose where they want to stretch, but remind them they can’t stretch everywhere.

Happiness equals success. Parents are told to encourage their children to follow what they love; academic interests should be no different. As much as we want to push teenagers to be their best, we should also set them up for success. This entails letting them take on challenges where they have interest and talent. Try not to let your own ambitions keep you from acknowledging your child’s. Likewise, try not to push their interests so hard that their passion turns into a dreaded task. The mantra is to helpfully encourage and support (with an occasional nudge), but pushing teenagers too much often leads them to burn out.

They don’t have to be good at everything. Though colleges look for consistency and achievement, most don’t expect students to be the best at everything. Students are often pushed to take high-level classes across the board indiscriminately, but the students I see do the best during the college process are those who have cultivated love and curiosity in a particular area (though keeping up grades across the board is still important).

I’ve had conversations where a student is doing poorly in a high-level math class and I find out later that he not only hates math, but it’s more difficult because he is dyslexic. This is a classic case where the family feels that dropping down a level will look bad during the college process, but instead it negatively affects the student’s other classes, along with his stress level. The lesson: students should be competent in all areas, but help them choose the areas where they really want to excel.

College is a step, not a destination. As the college process becomes more competitive, college conversations continue to start earlier. This has the result of making college seem like the end goal, rather than a step in the process. Just because the ultimate occupation might be unclear, don’t let ambitions rest on college alone. See it as what it is: a stepping stone that should help your child continue to build important skills. This is even more true in a culture where continued education is often needed later to specialize in a field.

Help them find their people. When it comes to the college selection process, pay attention to where your child feels comfortable when you visit. I long for my students to find the people who are like them, whatever that might mean, because this is ultimately the surest sign they’ll succeed. I’m wary of big name colleges for this reason; students and their families can be blinded by prestige. Though I won’t discount the value in a well-known college, we should encourage students to make sure the college fits who they are and the type of person they’d like to become.

Colleges need students. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that colleges need talented students in order for their institution to succeed. Students fret about whether they’ll be accepted to schools or not, but once the spring comes they often find themselves in control, choosing between their options. Don’t let your child forget the power they have to ultimately be in the driver’s seat and choose their college experience (with your help, of course).

The college process is much too complicated to completely simplify, but hopefully keeping these tips in mind will help your child see that it’s achievable. Encourage them to ask questions and investigate until they get answers that make them satisfied. And if that isn’t enough to make you both feel better, try to envision all of the once formidable college admissions counselors nervously waiting around to see if students will accept their offers to attend.


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Jess Foster is a playwright, dramaturg, and teacher whose work has been produced in New York, Providence, Boston, Washington DC, Albuquerque, and Iowa, where she earned her MFA from the Iowa Playwrights' Workshop. When she's not working in the theater or chasing her children around, Jess teaches English to high schoolers. She is originally from Maine and received her Bachelor's degree from Wheaton College; she currently resides outside of Boston with her wife and two sons.


PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.