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College Application or Marriage Proposal?

Applying to college isn’t simple.  Metaphorically, choosing a college can be like an arranged marriage—parents are involved in the choosing process, lifelong expectations are being weighted and future prosperity is being forecasted. “Dowries” are paid in the form of tuition, room and board, books etc.   Students seek a college that’s the right fit, dating campuses on tour after tour and attending college fairs, the “speed dating” of college admissions.  Parents suggest potential college “partners”, scouring websites as if they’re reading dating profiles.

The college application process can test the boundaries of the parent-kid and parent-parent relationships, which may be unexpected, yet understandable.  Without third party counsel, parents become editors, project managers, career counselors, lobbyists, publicists, and bankers in addition to coach, counselor, therapist and cheerleader.  Furthermore, teens are preparing to leave their childhood home and their parents’ watchful eyes, which can add emotional complexity to the process for everyone.

In a recent Forbes article, Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, offered his experience watching families weather the college admissions process, saying:

Unfortunately, parents often limit their student’s options by becoming overly focused on one particular school or set of schools, which stifles unity and increases anxiety and pressure. As the parent of young kids, I am always encouraged to see families who learn together, explore together, and grow together through searching for and applying to college. This happens when they understand that while they cannot control the outcomes of admission decisions or financial aid packages, they do control how they communicate, trust, listen and love one another.”

The consensus building inherent in the college application process can help a teenager transition away from home and parents to let them go.  Parents can experience their teen as a more equal partner in the parent-child relationship, and kids learn to trust themselves.  Then, when teens step out into the “real-er” world of college, parents will have more faith that their teen can navigate the good, the bad and the ugly which any parent knows is coming toward their child.

Yet, “letting go” both for a teenager used to following their parents lead and a parent used to taking charge, is a process.  One that happens imperfectly.   As Matthew Hyde, director of admission at Lafayette College stated, in the same Forbes article:

The college search experience, when well-informed and good-intentioned, creates an awesome opportunity for young people to gain agency over their narrative.  These college hopefuls can (and should) begin to get comfortable penning their own story, and owning the opportunity (arguably obligation) to take charge of their narrative.  If not yet co-authoring their own story, this rite of passage moment presents excellent footing for college applicants to begin to do so – honoring those who have raised and cared for them, but confidently taking charge of outlining the chapters to come.  Cutting out those who know them best is a bad idea on an applicant’s part, but refusing to allow applicants’ to take charge is equally bad.

Thus, the college application process is more than “just writing an essay and choosing the next school to attend.”  If engaged properly, teens can develop a vision for their future and have greater understanding of their inherent abilities. Parents can know their children as a person and not just “their offspring”.  Thus, with effort backed by the faith all works out in the end, then families can navigate the college admissions process together.  Their relationships can be strengthened and students can choose a college which is a partner for life.