How to tackle the college application process

college spplication

With one child in college and another who just finished the last of his college applications, I feel like college preparations and applications have been at the forefront of our dinner discussions for years now. And still, in spite of having two children who have gone through this process, it blows my mind that applying to go to college in the US is as involved and time consuming as it is. I am stunned that the process goes on for as long as it does — sometimes years if you count college trips and test preparations. I am plain shocked at the cost.

When you have a senior in high school it feels like the world stops its normal go-around and starts spinning in its own “college-application-way”. Your friends become obsessed, your kid is stressed out, and as a parent you feel like a walking credit card. Applying to college is an all-consuming thing; at least it feels that way sometimes. At a Christmas party this year, where most of the guests had a senior in high school (we had all met through school and our boys were all friends), there was one and only one conversation going on – how are your applications coming along, are you done, what is your strategy, what is your back-up school? It was a little surreal listening to the same conversation regardless of the grouping of people. It was also a little curious that these were parents chatting and not their college-bound kids.

I will admit I felt a little out of the loop at this party. Not because my son has not applied to college but because I have not been involved all that much. I took our school’s college counselor at her word when she said: “your child should be the one driving the college application process. Your child needs to keep track of deadlines and paperwork. If your child is not mature and responsible enough to do that, then he is not mature enough to go to college.” It made sense to me and I think it made sense to my son too. Of course we have helped our son when he has needed or wanted help, but we have not been in charge. I have not told my son what to write in his essays and I have not kept track of any deadlines. I have not made sure he has had transcripts and SAT scores forwarded to the right place at the right time. My job has been more of a cheerleader and, of course a provider of the credit card!

However, it is easy to see why we get so involved in this process and why we take it so seriously: we want what is best for our kids and we know that going to college is one way to set our kids up for success. And since the system here in the US seems so complex I think we as parents feel we have to dive in and help.

The biggest hurdle for many of us, especially if we have grown up in a country where college education is free, is to accept how expensive it is to go to college here. Having grown up in Sweden, where college is indeed free, I still can’t get over the fact that we will pay thousands and thousands of dollars every year just for my son to attend school and then thousands more for room and board and books. It is breathtaking when you go to your first college information night and you see the cost breakdown posted on the white board. The next shock is the acceptance rates at many of these schools; some of them are lower than 10%.

I asked my son the other day what advice he would give fellow high school students applying to college. This is what he said: “First of all, don’t panic, you will find a school that fits your needs and you will get through the application process. You have to learn to pace yourself. One way to do that is to make your own checklists – for the application process, for the schools you want to apply to, etc. When you write your essays ‘be yourself’ and don’t lie – ever! Don’t over- edit, it will come out sounding generic and not like you. Lastly, don’t get too attached to one school and make sure you have a backup or two that you like.” So, there you go – advice straight from a freshly applied senior, who is anxiously awaiting word from a dozen schools or so.

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