The College Decision Process

The notorious envelopes have arrived. College-bound seniors who received thick envelopes will be making what seems like the biggest—and most challenging—decision of their lives: where they will spend the next four years. Many students have fewer choices than they hoped because of decisions colleges made for them; they have to cope with painful rejections and/or limited financial packages. For those placed on waiting list(s), lingering hopes make it hard to commit to the schools that want them.

This is an emotionally intense time when parents must help teens manage strong reactions while also guiding them to reassess their priorities, weigh their options, and make well-informed decisions. Along with maintaining reasonable expectations and minimizing pressure, these strategies can help:
Empathize with their feelings. With soaring rejection rates, many teens have to give up their dreams of attending favorite colleges. Sadness, apprehension, self-doubt, a sense of unfairness, and envy of accepted students are all common—and normal—reactions.

Monitor your own reactions. You’re entitled to your own feelings. But even if you are utterly devastated, remember to be disappointed for your teens, not in them.
Give them time. Heartbroken high school seniors need time to grieve before they can even begin to imagine being happy somewhere else.

Take advantage of “accepted student” programs. For teens who second-guess their earlier preferences or whose interests have changed, revisiting schools is a chance to reassess their top choice schools and reassure themselves of their appeal.

Give them space. Encourage teens to visit overnight, by themselves, so they can fully experience the academic and social culture of the school without the distraction of family members around.
Accept and support their analyses. Regardless of whether you agree with your students, respect their right to have their own opinions. Also know that these may change, possibly multiple times, in the next four years.

Provide perspective. For many seniors, the stress of the application process has been elevated to life-and-death status, which prevents the flexibility needed for effective decision-making. To counteract:

1. Debunk myths. Remind teens that the US News and World Report college ranking should not be used to compare their options. Colleges gain elite status primarily by attracting the greatest number of applicants—and then rejecting them. Instead, they might focus on factors that directly influence the quality of their education, such as majors offered, availability of professors, and abroad programs, to name just a few.

2. It’s not where you go, it’s what you do once you get there. Wherever they go to college, teens will decide whether to party nonstop or to take full advantage of learning opportunities within and outside of the classroom. Wherever they go, they can gain skills, find internships, and do the kind of networking that leads to potential jobs.

3. Emphasize the “match.” Whether students are successful depends most on the match between them and their schools. These intangible qualities—for example, the amount of challenge, stimulation, nurturance, and opportunities—offered by schools determine whether students are comfortable enough to thrive. Support teens in getting a feel for the match—whether they do so by checklists and pro-con formulas or mere gut reactions within minutes of visiting campuses.
4. Offer facts. Remind students they can get a fine education at less selective schools. Many prominent Americans, from state governors, astronauts, and US presidents, to economists, best-selling authors, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, graduated from colleges that not only lack prestige, but have names few would recognize.

5. No college is perfect—or the correct choice for everyone. It relieves stress when teens know there is no one right decision; they can thrive at many schools. Plus, if they find their college isn’t working for them, they can always transfer.

At the end of the day, what teens really want to know is if they made parents proud. Hopefully you’ve conveyed all along that this is based not on a particular college sticker, but rather on all your son or daughter’s hard work and admirable qualities. Once they make their choices and send in their deposits, encourage them to relax, feel good about their accomplishments, and get excited about their college years.

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