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Managing the Emotional Side of College Admissions With Your Parents

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Applying to college is usually a family affair. Most parents of college applicants want to be involved in the application process, and they bring in their own ideas about where students should apply, how they should present themselves, and what they ought to do to prepare. They can be a major source of support, guidance, and information as students navigate college admissions season.


Unfortunately, the teen years are notorious for putting stress on the relationship between parent and child even before the application process begins. As a columnist for the New York Times recently wrote, teenagers can be fickle, secretive, and irritable, and all of these characteristics are normal and expected. At the same time, parents want what they believe is best for their kids — even when their kids don’t necessarily agree.


The additional stresses of college admissions season, and the intense emotional responses they generate can be especially difficult for parents and children to manage. However, it’s totally possible to get through this life stage while maintaining a good parent-child relationship. Here’s how you (the college applicant) can better anticipate, recognize, and respond to the emotional ups and downs of the college application season side by side with your parents.


College Application Stress: The Parental Perspective

While the brunt of college admissions stress falls upon you, the applicant, your parents will experience their own challenges during this process. Besides everyday tasks like driving you to soccer practice and helping you with homework, they’ll also take on the responsibility to provide emotional (and potentially financial) support, guidance, and patience as you make your way toward college.


Along the way, you may find that you and your parents have conflicting ideas about what’s best for you and what path you should take. Your parent’s expectations of you could be high, and may or may not match up with the expectations that you hold for yourself or the realities of your current high school experience. Their priorities and advice may simply not resonate with you or feel relevant for you.


It’s important to remember that your parents are people too, and have their own concerns to deal with, especially as they become aware of how much work it takes to apply to college. Parents who didn’t attend college may feel out of their depth, while parents who did attend college may find that their previous experience no longer matches today’s admissions realities.


Your parents may worry about the financial burden of college, dread the oncoming rush of paperwork and deadlines, or see college admissions as a referendum on their parenting. They might want you to pursue an education and career path that’s similar to theirs, and perhaps even attend their alma mater, which might not be in line with your own preferences.


Also, many parents will be in the midst of their own emotional responses to their kids growing up and leaving home, which can be difficult for them. Leaving for college isn’t just a major change in your life — it’s a major change in your parents’ lives as well. College application season forces them to confront the fact that before long, you’ll be away at school, living more independently, and their own daily lives will be substantially different.


Your parents have most likely devoted many years to raising you and helping you to become the person you are. These years have been shaped by their parenting responsibilities and concerns, from covering your basic needs to helping you meet your long-term goals.


While watching you plan for the future is exciting and can be a source of pride, it can also be tough for your parents to adjust to these new realities. They may worry about whether you’re making the right decisions, and experience feelings of sadness and loss at the idea of no longer being quite as involved in your life.


College is a major milestone for your parents as well as for you, and they’re likely experiencing an ever-varying mixture of pride, worry, excitement, and anxiety as you make your way through the application process.


Most of all, however, even though your parents want what’s best for you and know that it’s their job to take care of and support you, they may not be sure how to best meet this responsibility. Helping you get into an excellent college is important, but so is seeing to your emotional needs, and it can be very difficult for them to see you stressed out or struggling. They may not know how to help, when to intervene, or how receptive you’ll be to their assistance.


Saving Space for Emotional Reactions

First and foremost, it’s essential that you acknowledge that the college application process will involve strong emotions no matter what. You may feel cool, calm, and collected right now, but as you dive into the oncoming storm of stress and deadlines, acceptances and rejections, that’s likely to change.


When you’re planning out your schedule for your senior year of high school, it’s always a good idea to consciously allocate space and time to take care of yourself, and the emotional impact of the admissions process is one reason why. You’ll need time to think, process your feelings, and make wise decisions, so you can’t expect to be running in high gear during all your waking hours.


You may want to build time into your schedule for specific de-stressing techniques, as we’ve described in the CollegeVine blog post Six Techniques for Dealing with Stress in High School. These could include meditation and other mindfulness practices, exercise and outdoor activities, or the traditional bubble bath, among many other options.


Alternately, you might find that what you really need is to set aside blocks of unscheduled time so that you can relax without expectations. Either way, you deserve the chance to take care of yourself and your emotional needs.


You’ll also need to save space for your emotions in a less literal sense by accepting that they’re normal for someone in your situation. Applying for college is a high-pressure process that will have a major impact upon your future. You can and should work to take care of yourself and manage your reactions in this time of stress, but some emotional upheaval is going to happen regardless of mitigating practices.


There’s no reason to feel bad or ashamed of the fact that you’re experiencing emotional ups and downs, and denying or ignoring those feelings won’t help your stress level. What will help is addressing these issues head-on, and your parents can be key players in addressing these issues effectively.

Working With Your Parents to Handle Emotional Ups and Downs

Good communication is an absolute must when you’re trying to manage your parents’ involvement in your college applications. Try to be open and specific about what you’re feeling and what you need — your parents know you well, but they can’t read your mind entirely.


It can help to make explicit advance plans for how you’re going to share practical information about your college ambitions and the progress of your applications with your parents. There are innumerable methods you could use, from a shared Google document to the lower-tech whiteboard at home or regular conversations over dinner.


You’ll also have to come to an agreement about which and how much information you’ll share. Will your parents read your essays, and if so, are you open to them offering suggestions? Will they have input on other parts of your application? Are you on the same page about how you’ll evaluate colleges and make a decision about where to attend? Setting boundaries is an important part of any adult relationship, and it’s up to you to come up with appropriate boundaries and to communicate them clearly.


It can also help for you to figure out what basic priorities and preferences are behind what makes one college or path more attractive to you than another. Are you just not interested in attending a small liberal arts college? Are you particularly excited about going to college in a big city?


Questions like these can give you a better understanding of which parts of the college application process are most important to you. If you share your preferences with your parents, they’ll be better able to offer their help in ways that are targeted and appropriate to your own needs and goals.


As a college applicant, one of the most important things for you to understand is that your parents really aren’t trying to ruin your life. They’re trying to guide and protect you by becoming involved in your college application process and influencing your decisions in the direction they think is in your best interest.


You can put in work that will help you to understand your parents’ motivations for approaching college admissions in the way that they do, and you can also put in work to help them understand you. If you can show your parents that you’re also invested in making wise choices and finding a college that will provide you with a great educational experience, hopefully leading to a solid career, this can do a lot to bridge the gap.


At this point in your life, you’re starting to build a more adult relationship with your parents as your life changes dramatically, which is totally normal for a young adult like you. You’re growing and taking on more responsibilities, including making life-altering choices about your own education and career.


Ultimately, you’re the only one who can make these decisions; your parents can advise and influence, but legally and practically, they can’t control the final outcome. They may need to be gently but firmly reminded — perhaps by another parent who’s already been through this process — that your growing independence is a good and appropriate thing, and a natural consequence of you becoming the adult they’ve raised you to be.


However, don’t forget that you’re still quite young, and it’s reasonable for your parents to be concerned about you. It’s also reasonable for you to depend on them for assistance as you go through the stresses of the application process. Your parents’ love and support can be an invaluable source of strength and wisdom, no matter what highs and lows your college admission experience might hold.


For More Information

Looking for more resources to help your parents understand and manage the college application process? Look no further than the CollegeVine blog. Here are a few posts of special interest to parents hoping to help their children succeed in the college application process.



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.