Three College Application Ground Rules For Parents

When I was 17, I remember reading a sample college admission essay from a student who got accepted into top schools. As an impressionable teenager, reading this essay was partially inspiring (10%)but more stressful (90%!). The entire time I was reading, I was comparing myself to what I was reading in a well edited, well received published college admissions essay. Just like most of our Facebook profiles these days, our outside/published persona often only shares positive memories (as if the less positive, more constructive ones don’t happen) but to an impressionable teenager, it can seem like “perfect” is possible. And each time we don’t receive a perfect result or picture, our self-esteem goes down.

Perfect ACT/SAT score. Perfect GPA. Perfect essays. Amazing extracurricular activities with awards. Incredible volunteering stories and experiences.  Even as I make the list my anxiety rises a little. My anxiety raises quite a bit when my mind goes to whether or not my kids will meet some of this criteria. I get close to a panic attack when I think that I could spend my entire parenting experience pushing them for perfection (why is my 4-year old not holding his crayon the “right” way?) and, at best, leave them competing (and comparing) to others for the rest of their lives or at worst, leave them depressed for failing to achieve an impossible standard. Both options are pretty awful.

I’ve experienced these emotions as I adopted perfectionist behaviors as a child. When I was pregnant with my son, I read “Tiger Mom” and found it quite funny, often thinking I may turn out like the author. I have no criticism for any parent but, today, I am glad I am not a tiger mom. But who knows what type of a mom I could become.  

What I offer are suggestions on how we can be truly constructive in helping our children through the college application process. Below are three ground rules I recommend you discuss with your teenager.

1. You, the parent, are not the admissions committee. I believe it’s quite humbling for parents to acknowledge to their kids that they are not qualified to judge their kids’ accomplishments, specifically in the admissions process. Even if you home school and you know exactly all of your kid’s strengths and weaknesses, you still don’t know qualities the other candidates bring and how your kid will shape the character for his/her class. You cannot be objective. Put it in perspective, if you were on the actual admissions committee, you’d likely be required to recuse yourself from rating your own kid’s application. Acknowledge this. They may remind you of it later, but I think it will only help any relationship.

2. Your child, the student, is not the admissions committee either. Really, tit for tat? You can joke about it, but this is where you really have to address the fact that your kid may be harder on themselves than you can imagine. Most all A’s students suffer from self-comparison and competition, so don’t think if your child is pretty great that they are immune to self-doubt. A student with lower grades may wonder if they can even get in anywhere. This impacts everyone. They have a sample of one (him- or herself) and they are comparing themselves to a well-polished essay (not a first draft!) and a very positive Facebook history from friends and frenemies. Nip this in the bud. Stop them from generalizing and catastrophizing. Empower them. Talk to them about the light you see in them when they do something they love. Let them know you see their struggles and their successes, and that everything on that spectrum is not only okay, but expected!

3. Your child is special. Technically, there is no one else like your child. By definition, there is no one else that could do a better job at being your child, than your child!  Even if you have twins, technically, there will be differences in something – behavior, style, etc. I’m not trying to be cheeky about this. You may think “My child has an average GPA, a few activities, a lot of social media time and really nothing to write about in her essays.” Most people like talking or writing about themselves. Even at a 30 minute interview, I can generally find something interesting about a person and it is generally the thing that lights up their eyes. Again, remind them of things they enjoyed when they were 4 (silly squiggly letters?) which may affect what they enjoy today (art?).

So. Stop the comparison game. It doesn’t serve anyone, least of all the person you love so dearly and helped shape.

Call to action: Actually talk about this tonight at dinner. Let us know how it goes in the comments!

Aleksandra (Aleks) Stefanovska is a management consultant, admissions coach and a mom of two kids. Aleks is also a little annoyed that we as society stress our kids instead of give them tools to succeed while CELEBRATING their accomplishments and learning from failures, hence her website www.PainFreeToCollege.com. While a 4-year university may not be for everyone, the skills the college admissions teaches are life skills she wants everyone to know. She shares those tips on her website and in her upcoming book: "Pain Free To College: A step-by-step guide for life and admissions success". Follow her on Facebook or talk to her on Twitter.