October: Ownership, Open-mindedness, & Optimism

As October looms, I anticipate that some of my seniors will have mild (or intense?) panic attacks when the calendar flips: “My last chance to take the SAT for early action is this month!” “My application is due in just a few weeks!” The stress is not necessarily less for juniors, but simply of a different nature: “But I have big tests and huge projects every day for the next three weeks!” “But I’m on the homecoming committee and am totally stressed out!” “But playoffs are at the end of the month!” And so it goes.

October is coming; let’s get ready. Some theme words for your consideration:

  • Ownership. If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s time for your senior student to own his college application process. This can be a difficult thing for parents to encourage if they themselves are wracked with anxiety. Michael G. Thompson, in his “College Admission: Failed Rite of Passage,” articulates the root of some of the trouble here:

    Parents may need to be reassured as their fledglings leave the nest that they really have taught them how to fly. Since it is impossible to assess the quality of what parents have done for their children at this point, what is the next best thing? What comes closest to getting graded as parents? The status of the college to which the child is admitted.

    …which leads to all kinds of parental control and intervention in a process where the student bears much of the outcome of the decisions.

    Practically speaking, this means that if your student hasn’t taken the time to fill out his applications or start his essays, by all means, give him a major nudge (I tell seniors to treat “College Applications” like an elective class on their schedules, with a dedicated time window). But DO NOT COMPLETE ANY PART OF A COLLEGE APPLICATION FOR YOUR STUDENT. Sorry, was I raising my voice? If your student hasn’t yet learned that his actions or inactions have consequences, it’s better he learn it now while still hovering over your safety net than next year when he’s at college and will free-fall. If, in October, your student is not motivated to continue along the college process, perhaps it is better to have a conversation about constructive gap years than to push applications he doesn’t want to complete.

  • Open-mindedness. For juniors, this is the time of year I start pulling together initial college lists. When I hand over a list, the student typically scans quickly through the college names, looking for the “good” ones. If you’re not sure how I feel about the idea of “good” colleges, please read my post about college rankings.

    Here’s the thing: college lists are not made by pulling random names of schools out of a hat. A list prepared by a competent consultant or counselor always takes into account the student’s parameters—both qualitative and quantitative—and the student’s personality. Believe it or not, there are colleges out there that a student or parent may never have heard of but that other people have heard of. I could put Dickinson College on a list for a student in Maryland with no questions asked; the same college on a Georgia student’s list would return a blank stare at best or a “What’s this no-name college I haven’t heard of? Take it off my list” at worst, even if Dickinson is a good match college for both students. We could reverse the story with a southern example like Furman University. Rest assured that future graduate schools and employers are more familiar with colleges than the average high school student. Juniors should start the process with open minds, ready to explore the plethora of options out there for them, even if this means looking into a college they’ve never heard of before.

  • Optimism. Finally, something for all grade levels and parents: let’s resolve to stay positive in October. Everyone is busy this time of year… but don’t we say that at most times of year? How about instead of using “busy,” “stressed,” and (my favorite) “slammed,” we turn our perspectives around. Our lives are full, in the best sense of the word. Our kids’ lives are full. What a blessing. Your senior has too many colleges to choose from. Your junior gets to run in the sunshine on the soccer field with two healthy legs. Your sophomore or freshman has discovered, in that mound of homework, something new and interesting that will spark years of further learning and study.

    If you want to take it a step further, get off the busy-mobile altogether, as urged by Tim Kreider. A favorite book of mine on this topic for younger high school students is How to Be a High School Superstar.

    But, at this point, baby steps—stay optimistic, using positive, affirming language to describe how your student is doing.

Contact us if you’d like to learn how we can come alongside your family as you navigate your student’s college planning process this month. Here’s to a lovely October!