Stress-Free College Search: Surviving the Admission Process

Keeping It Real: The Importance of Student/Parent Collaboration to a Healthy, Productive College Planning Process
By Peter Van Buskirk

It will be over before you know it-and probably before you are ready. After years of anticipation and planning, the college process will blow through your life like a twister. You see it coming and brace yourself. Then, as though punched by high winds and slammed by rising waters, you are overcome by the elements. Order gives way to chaos for what seems like eternity. Nothing can prepare you for the onslaught of late-night editing, the panicked rush to beat deadlines, the “forced marches” to college campuses, and the seemingly constant wrangling over what to do and how to do it.

And then it’s over. In a flash, the college process becomes history as your child has gone off to college-an apt metaphor regarding your lives together. One minute you speculate with her on all the “what if” and “wouldn’t it be nice” scenarios and, the next, she’s on her way. And, with very little time to adjust, your role will be reduced to that of long distance spectator. You give the better part of your adult life to making sure she has these opportunities-and then, in a flash, it happens. All you can do is watch.

Yes, there will be pressure to do things correctly and the inevitable stresses that come with high expectations. On the other hand, you don’t have to give in to the stresses. This doesn’t have to be a joyless process. Rather, recognize the opportunity to celebrate the “becoming” of a young person and the chance to build upon a life well lived. This is a long way of saying you will survive the college process. In fact, the two of you will survive it and, in all likelihood, each other. And you will both be fine.

The college-going does process provide a unique opportunity for parents and children to begin redefining their relationship around the concept of ownership. In my book, Winning the College Admission Game: Strategies for Students and Parents (Peterson’s, 2007), I examine the need for each to embrace new roles as they come together in finding healthy, student-centered solutions for college. I would like to draw from this concept-and content-in offering the following guidance to parents and their students as they begin to plan for college.

Parents: Give Unconditionally
For the moment, parents, try to forget that you have been dreaming and scheming about your child’s future from the point of conception! Smile and relax-on both the inside and the outside. Life is too short for this process to be taken too seriously. After all, the opportunity to pursue a college education is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. Give it unconditionally. Give it with love. And celebrate the occasion.

Two, recognize that the gift you are extending is that of an opportunity, not a place. Much as you might want to see your student at one place or another, you can’t expect this process to work out according to your formula. If the outcomes match your preconceived notions, that’s great. If not, the giving continues. Be careful not to attach a value to your student that is a reflection of where she may or may not have gotten in.

And three, don’t try to tinker with the genetic code! She is who she is. Don’t try to make her into something else in order to get into the colleges you have in mind. A lot of parents set high expectations for their kids and then are disappointed when the expectations aren’t met. While it is natural to have such expectations-and to feel disappointment when they are not met-you need to remember that the feelings are yours. Handling them is your problem.

Finally, it is unfair to burden your child with the weight of failed expectations. As parents, we forget too easily that growing up is a process. It happens in different ways at different times for each of us. Wherever she is in the process, she’ll be fine. She just needs to know that you have her back.

And remember, parents don’t get kids into college. Neither do consultants, or special summer programs. Kids get themselves into college. In Winning the College Admission Game, I teach parents and students how to think about the process so the student can be supported in making productive choices-choices that will give her access to colleges that value her for who she is.

Students: “Be True to Yourself”
To the student looking ahead to college, know that the college search and selection process will be over before you know it. Despite entering your life rather innocently (“Just think, you’ll be going to college in a few years”), it soon morphs into an expectation of daunting proportions-“If you want to get ahead in life, you need to get into the best school possible!” Whether college is a rite of passage or you are the first in your family to pursue a college education, the swirling caldron of expectation and uncertainty that engulfs you can be just as maddening as it is exciting.

It might be easier said than done, but try to block all out of the extraneous stuff-the emotional ups and downs that your peers experience, the anxious questioning that comes from your parents and the curiosity of well-wishers in the community. There’ll be more than enough drama going around that you don’t have to be part of it. Instead, be yourself. Do your thing, whatever it is, as well as you can. And stay true to the vision you have for yourself.

Most of all, don’t take yourself or the process too seriously. Otherwise, it can devour you! Relax. Smile. Know that the future of the world doesn’t rest on the outcome of your college applications. You won’t be branded a success or a failure unless you allow that to happen. The simple truth is the success you experience in life has little to do with where you go to college and much more to do with how you take advantage of the experience while you are there.

If you go into this process, however, expecting that the outcomes will be fair and logical-that you will get what you deserve-you’ll be greatly disappointed. At the end of the day, colleges and universities will admit whomever they want for reasons that are only important to them. This is especially true of the more selective institutions. Why? Because the can. It is incredibly important, then, that you find colleges that fit you well. In doing so, you put yourself on a competitive playing field where you belong thus reducing your vulnerability to what can otherwise be an arbitrary selection process. Moving forward, then, make sure that you:

• Know Yourself
• Make Good Choices
• Do What You Love; Love What You Do
• Sprint to the Finish

Know Yourself. The “going to college” process is all about you-not your parents, your teachers or your best friends. It’s certainly not about the colleges! Remain centered on who you are, what you need and how you function most comfortably. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the agendas of others. Find the college that fits you best and you’ll have the rest of your life to find emotional satisfaction that is derived from the experiences you have in college.

Make Good Choices. The application you submit to colleges represents the body of your work over four years of high school. As a result, the decisions you make on a daily basis-not just about the big stuff like course selections and after school involvements, but the amount of time you spend on your homework or in editing a paper-will have a bearing on how you compete for admission at colleges that can be selective. So, make good choices in the classroom and in life. Put yourself in a position to compete.

Do What You Love; Love What You Do. Your capacity to contribute to the quality of life on a given campus helps to define your value to that institution. Find your gifts, your passions. Cultivate them, nurture them and allow them to grow so that when the inevitable question is asked about you by an admission officer, “What do we get if we admit him?’ the answer will be readily apparent.

Sprint to the Finish! Think of your high school experience as being analogous to the mile race (four times around the track). If you have ever run the race, you know that you must complete each lap in order to be in a position to post a good result. Being in command of the race at the end of the third lap (junior year), though, does not guarantee victory. You may feel good about where you are relative to the competition, but you have yet to win anything! The senior year is the “gun lap.” It is when the race is won. So, regardless of where you are at the end of your junior year, take control. Seize the opportunity to make a race of it in the senior year by sprinting to the finish!

Finally, embrace the opportunity that lies before you. Don’t let the inevitable stresses of the admission process diminish your excitement for what you will achieve in college and beyond. Regardless of where you end up spending your college years, you’ll be fine. Get ready for a happy and productive college experience!

About the Author:

Peter Van Buskirk is the author of Winning the College Admission Game: Strategies for Students and Parents. A former dean of admission and staunch advocate of a student-centered, college-going culture, he presents to high school, corporate and summer camp audiences around the country. He also is the parent of three children who successfully navigated the college process.  For more info go to

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