Handling College Admission Decisions: A Sidecar Parent’s Guide

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Helicopter, bulldozer, snowplow, tugboat, Velcro, tiger, and now drone—these are all the deprecatory labels that we use to describe today’s overinvolved, and sometimes aggressive, parents. Throughout two decades as a school counselor, I have witnessed these child-rearing styles and many others, some productive and others less so. However, I am not a fan of such pejorative terms, as the reality is, parents love their children. It is this love, and the hopes and fears it ignites, that drive parents’ actions. 

I often feel more like a family therapist than a college counselor. I help students and parents navigate these hopes and fears, and manage expectations and relationships that can become charged amidst the complicated dynamics of applying to college and planning for life beyond high school. It is easy when one is removed from the emotion and attachment of a parent, to look at these approaches to raising children with perspective and objectivity. However, as the parent of a high school senior who will in two weeks learn if he has been admitted to his top choice of colleges, this all looks and feels very different.

In 1692, William De Britaine wrote, “he who will be his own Counsellour, shall be sure to have a Fool for his Client.” This assertion has been applied to many professions over centuries and it still holds true to this day. So, as I put on my father hat, I turned to the experts who have researched, worked with, and written about parents to offer some wisdom for families facing college admission decisions.

Psychotherapist Lynn Lyons is a co-author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children, and co-host of the Flusterclux podcast. She says, “As early acceptances and rejections begin to arrive, we need to be keenly aware of the dangerous message that there is one path to success, that these decisions—made by an institution that doesn’t even know your child—define a teen’s future.” She adds, “A rigid, all or nothing mentality in high achieving students and parents absolutely fuels anxiety and depression in teens, so here’s an opportunity for parents to respond with perspective and flexibility.” Lyons asks, “How will you let your teen know that you understand the disappointment, but how will you also model for them the ability to tolerate big emotions, recover (over time) from disappointment and rejection, and make adjustments as they grow?” She emphasizes that “these are huge life skills and it’s our job to teach them.” 

Jessica Lahey is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” and The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence.” She is also the mother of a high school senior who, like my son, is awaiting a decision from an early application. Her older son is about to graduate from college and is attending his second-choice school. Lahey says, “It’s turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him. He was dead set on his early decision school, so excited about it, and when he was rejected, he was devastated.” She explains that “once he started focusing on his other choices, he found that his second choice was actually a better fit.” She adds, “he needed some distance from the rosy light he’d been viewing that first choice through since the day he stepped on campus.” With her second son, Lahey says, “We have been preparing for either eventuality by discussing alternative options—gap year, working year, attending his backup for a year and transferring—all are great, interesting options that will give him experience in self-advocacy.” On December 15, she says, “we will either be having a celebratory dinner or a dinner where we talk about the benefits of having more choices once you can see the entire playing field, all acceptances, and rejections in hand.” She adds, “it will all turn out fine, kiddo.”

Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, emphasizes the importance of moving from “parent to partner” as our children apply to college. He says, “Prior to admission decisions coming out, my hope is parents will take their focus off the names of colleges, their own personal hopes, and the recent build-up of emotion or anticipation, and instead consider the time, effort, and shared experiences that have led to this point.” Clark adds, “by doing this, whether a student is admitted, deferred, or denied, they will be ready to genuinely celebrate, empathize, or simply love and support.” 

Denise Pope is one of the founders of Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education. She highlights two strategies for parents as they support their college applicants:

  • “We recommend that teens open emails from colleges in private rather than finding out in class in the middle of the school day or having a parent live stream it on social media. If the news is not good, your teen may need some support and time to grieve, and they will likely be watching your reaction as well. As a parent, consider going to a separate room from your teen after hearing the news, so you can celebrate or grieve alone and have a few moments to regulate your emotions.”
  • “Remind teens that where they go matters less than what they do when they get there. We do not say this lightly. Research supports that engagement in college is more important than where a student goes. While picking a college can feel like a monumental decision, we encourage teens (and parents) to realize that this one choice is not going to make or break their chances for future success. To see more of this research and what engagement in college looks like, explore the Challenge Success white paper, A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Rankings.”

Richard Weissbourd agrees. He is the faculty director of Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the lead author of the Turning the Tide report, a collaborative statement from college admission leaders that seeks to reduce achievement pressure, emphasize ethical engagement, and level the playing field in college admission. He is also the author of  “The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development” Weissbourd says, “I think many parents really need to wade into the muck of themselves if they’re going to have honest and helpful conversations with their kids every step of the way in the college admissions process.” He adds, “Parents need to ask themselves how much of their own hopes and needs are getting confused with what is best for their child—their own status concerns, their competitive feelings with other parents, their belief that the college their child attends is a clear and public reflection of their success as parents, their hopes that their child will live out their particular dreams or compensate for their shortcomings.”

Jenifer Lippincott is an author of “7 Things Your Teenager Won’t Tell You: And How to Talk About Them Anyway”. She explains that “for more years than we care to count, and often beyond conscious awareness, our conversations with our kids have pointed in the direction of college. Whether about extracurriculars, summers, grades, class choices, family history, personal experiences—these conversations often veer toward preparation for, or in anticipation of, college. And then, as if suddenly, the decisions land—sometimes with a thud, other times with celebratory fanfare.” Regardless of whether we find ourselves in exactly the place we hope or in a less desirable situation, Lippincott offers the following thoughts:

  • “No matter the degree of sweat, toil, and angst we have poured into the college application process, we are not the ones embarking on this journey. All the steering, cajoling, and directioning helped get them to this point. But only they will walk the halls and write the papers. Just as they needed to balance when learning to ride a bike, if we don’t let go, they will not learn how to right themselves on their own.”
  • “Although possible that the choice they make may not ultimately be the best one (especially in our view), it will stand as one of their most monumental to date. Ask any successful leader whether they learned more from their successful decisions or their faulty ones. Invariably, they will cite the stumbles. Why? Because they provided an opportunity to learn and move on. Isn’t that life skill one of the most important? (And anyway, it offers us another opportunity to provide direction.)”
  • “If we think about our own paths to college honestly, they quickly fade in importance compared to the others that follow. So why do we outsize it so for our own kids? To quote Malcolm Gladwell, ‘When I look at a resume, I require them to black out the names of the schools they went to. I don’t want to know. I don’t care. I’m interested in you. I’m interested in what you think and do and what books you read.’”

A New Nickname 

Perhaps we need to reframe the paradigm of parenting. A sidecar seems to be a more appropriate metaphor for where we ought to be as parents—not plowing, tugging, dozing, or hovering—but along for the ride and certainly not driving. We can point out potential hazards on the road and offer our guidance, but in the end, where our children choose to steer is up to them. Whether they crash or cruise, we will feel the impact as well, but we have a bit of separation and the ability to be by their side with support and love. As I strap on my father helmet, experience tells me that my son will ride to success regardless of his college admission news this month. Opportunities will unfold as long as he keeps eyes on the road, and that much we have taught him. Whether he is admitted or denied, we will celebrate or process together and motor onward.

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