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College applications: What I've learned as a parent the second time around

Calm down! There's a school that's right for your kid, one that they can get into.

A friend with a high school sophomore recently asked for advice on the college search and I told him what I wish had been shared with me: Calm down.

This is my new mantra, as I watch my second child go through the exhausting, anxiety-inducing, nerve-wracking college application process. It’s my new mantra because I was the opposite of Zen when my oldest child did it three years ago.

Since then, much has changed. On the national front, we have seen overzealous parents go to jail as part of the biggest college admissions bribery scandal in U.S. history. Jail! On the personal front, I’ve seen — through my own kid and others I have tutored in college essay-writing — that the stress and pressure teens feel in this process comes largely from one place: us, their parents.

It turns out that when we actively stop helicoptering, a funny thing happens: They survive. It reminds me of another time I changed parenting tactics. When my first would drop her pacifier on the ground, we’d freak out and sterilize it. The second one? I’d pick it up, stick it in my own mouth and it was good to go. Both survived.

So, here are some things I’ve learned and, as a result, this college application fall has been largely uneventful. Oh, my senior son is definitely still in the weeds — at this moment he has 5 of 9 applications completed. Lots to be done. But for me? There is clarity as I remind myself to:

Calm down, because the applications will get done.

It doesn’t matter how. Some people hire a college counselor to help shepherd their kids through the process. (We did, for our first child.) Others get help from teachers and school counselors. Other kids prefer to navigate on their own (our second child). Your only responsibility is to ask what support they need and provide it where you can. If they say they don’t need anything, don’t question it. This is very hard to do. You will want to snoop on their Common Application portal. You will want to ask what they wrote for the supplemental essay for College X. Or if they got the recommendation from Teacher X. Don’t ask. Trust them.

Calm down, and don’t worry if you haven’t taken your kid on dozens of college tours.

Our son went on many of the visits his older sister did. And there were so many. But after creating his list of schools, there are a few he hasn’t seen. The “old me” would have hurriedly booked a trip to see them all. “Reformed me” realizes those trips are nice luxuries, but not necessary as every college has online video tours that suffice. Take the trip when you are accepted and you know it's a real potential choice.

Calm down, because there IS a college for them.

There is a lot wrong with the college admissions system (see “Jail,” above). But what is right is that there are so many incredible places to get higher education in this country — whether it’s a junior college, small college or a big university, public or private. As cliché as it sounds, it’s true: There’s a school that is right for your kid, one that they can get into.

Some of the many college pamphlets our son has received during this past year.
Some of the many college pamphlets our son has received during this past year. Kavita Varma-White

The key to believing this is to adjust your expectations accordingly. It feels like more schools are what counselors call “reach” schools (harder to gain acceptance) than “likely” schools, so it’s important to have a diverse list of options. When you have seen your first child get both rejected and placed on a waiting list, but still land at a college that is just right for her, you are more secure in knowing the second one will find his “right" place, too.

Calm down, because if there isn’t a college that fits, there are plenty of other paths for success.

A friend recently told me her high school senior is not keen on doing all the applications, so he is thinking about going to a firefighter academy. Another friend’s kid is passionate about cars and is going to a trade school to learn mechanics. Another friend’s kid is extremely bright but is tired of the academic grind and wants to do a gap year of work and travel to get her “mojo” back. Why do we think college is the only path? It just isn’t.

Calm down, and don’t ask your kids' friends about college until May 1, the official acceptance day.

It is the thing every adult asks a high school senior: “What are your plans for next year?” We can’t help it, because it seems like such an obvious topic of conversation. But it is the last thing they want to talk about. Sure, ask their parents. They would LOVE to talk about it. Leave the kids alone.

Calm down, and tell your kids you are proud of them.

The applications are the final step in a long journey of grades and tests and essays and their entire high school experience. They are worn out, stick-a-fork-in-it done. They are no different from us when we put in the work and accomplish a long-term goal. They want to hear "job well done." So tell them, as often as you can, how proud you are.