There’s so much buzz around selecting a college nowadays that America has made a holiday of sorts out of it. Depending on who you ask, May 1 is “National College Signing Day” or “Decision Day,” a day when photos and hashtags and declarations about college decisions inundate social media.
It’s traditionally the deadline at many schools for future students to make a commitment to the next step in their education, and it’s easy for parents and teens alike to feel overwhelmed by all the options and uncertainties that come with such a decision. But preparing your kid to make the leap to college, making sure they find the right school, and letting them go is simpler than you’d think, experts say.
So, where do you begin? Consider the high-schooler in front of you, for starters, and make sure you’re nurturing their independence. Resist any temptation to overparent. “Many of these kids are going to college completely unprepared to function independently,” says Sean Grover, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in New York.
He’s worked with teenagers for 25 years and conducts group therapy sessions for college students. Parental dependence — teens’ inability to do homework without supervision, organize their own schedule, or manage a bank account, for example — is the No. 1 reason he sees students overcome with anxiety and struggling in college.
Anxiety also springs from the unknown, he says — and for a lot of kids, college is a massive unknown. “We want to take the mystery out of it,” Grover says. “The more they can anticipate it, the better the adjustment.”
Things such as college prep courses or internships can help familiarize a student with the expectations ahead, but ideally, parents should be laying the groundwork for their future freshman when the kids are young. “For parents, it’s not just letting go at the end of senior year,” says Maria Furtado, executive director of the nonprofit Colleges That Change Lives. “It’s a little bit of letting go here and there.”
That means teaching them to perform basic chores such as making their bed or doing laundry, as well as allowing them the opportunity to think for themselves before they get to college. Letting your child learn to make their own decisions is important, says Marshall Duke, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
For 35 years, Duke gave a talk at Emory’s orientation for parents. During the talk, he shared ideas about how to parent their freshman, preparing moms and dads for the new dynamic. Part of the talk focused on telling parents to leave their children alone. “I tell parents, ‘You want them to be able to solve problems and make good decisions on their own, because when you get older, they’re going to make decisions about you,’ ” Duke says. “That always gets their attention.”
You can help foster those skills by letting your teen drive their college search. Furtado’s organization is dedicated to promoting and supporting what it calls a “student-centered college search process.” There’s a lot of cultural baggage that goes along with finding a college, Furtado explains, which is why it’s essential to let students find a school that’s the right personal and academic fit for them. “(Your student) might not be Stanford material, and that’s OK,” she says.
Encourage your teen to do some soul-searching before making a list of colleges. Ask them what they liked about high school. Did they enjoy classes because of their relationships with their teachers? If so, look for smaller schools that tout faculty mentoring, Furtado suggests. Did they dread group projects or having to speak up in class? Maybe a larger school that offers more anonymity would be a better fit.
“Understanding what they like — and dislike — about their high school is a valuable tool,” Furtado adds.
Ask your teen what they like outside of high school, too. “I’ll hear from these kids who say, ‘I love to hike! I want to ski!’ and then they’ll look at a school like Columbia, smack dab in the middle of a city,” Furtado says. By finding schools that appeal to their interests, you’ll help them find ways they can build connections — and find friends — in college.
Just don’t stress too much about finding the so-called perfect college. “There’s no such thing as the perfect college,” Duke says. “There are lots of perfect colleges for every child.”
And keep in mind that their choosing a college isn’t about you. “Parents don’t get a report card every third month, so a lot of them think their report card is the college admissions,” Furtado says. “There’s this big piece that says, ‘What does that say about me as a parent?’”
It’s also important to remember that being a parent isn’t your only identity. “Reminding parents that they’re actual people and not only a parent is really important,” Furtado says. “We tend to struggle with that in our culture.”
But don’t worry, Mom and Dad. In our hyperconnected world, your kid isn’t likely going off into a vacuum. You’ll probably hear from them again soon. “Kids used to call once a week,” Duke says. “The phone call was a big thing. Now it’s not. Very often you’ll find kids are talking to their parents and texting them many times a day: ‘Here’s a picture of my lunch!’”