The Parent’s Guide to College Application Stress

How much to be involved and how to handle the emotions of this time

In less than a month, my oldest daughter Taylor will be 18. How did we get here? I feel like I blinked and her middle school years were gone. Blinked again, and she's less than a year away from high school graduation.

Taylor's dad and I have aimed to raise her to be conscientious and independent in preparation for this stage of her life. But the march toward her leaving for college has still been an emotional one for me.

I'm feeling some of what I imagine my mother felt as my senior year drew to a close: pride, terror, and intermittent nausea. One minute, I'm excited at the thought of Taylor starting the next chapter of her life – full of new experiences, new places, new people. The next, I feel a wave of panic and a heaviness in the pit of my stomach at the thought of my baby living away from home, away from me.

I think I've done a pretty good job of not being a helicopter parent, but I still worry.

I try to remember that, despite being clueless about so many things when I was Taylor's age, I managed to survive college. But my urge to protect her is so strong, I feel like I'm cramming for a big test: What are all the things I haven't taught her that she needs to know? Can I fit in everything before she leaves? Is that really how I want to spend the rest of this school year and the summer?

Taylor and I will be sitting on the couch watching a movie together, and I'll think, "Will she remember not to leave her cup unattended at a party? Does she know how to change a flat tire?"

Needless to say, I'm struggling.

So I reached out to my friend, parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa, aka Dr. G, author of Get the Behavior You Want Without Being the Parent You Hate, for some advice and reassurance.

I've talked to other parents, and it seems that even if you're not pressuring your kid to get into the Ivy League, the college application process can still stress everyone out. What can parents do, besides not pressuring their kid?
First, play out your child's worst-case scenario fears with them – with empathy. Ask, "What if you didn't get into a single four-year university to next year?" Walk through that scenario. As parents, we think a question like that will stress them out more. But once they see that they do have options, that the world won't come to an end, it helps.

We like to tell our kids, "Everything is going to be okay," even when they're old enough to know that sometimes everything is not okay. So they need to have a plan. Even if the thing they're worried about happens, it will be okay. This promotes resilience. What you're saying is, "I think you're going to get into a bunch of places, but even if you don't, you have a plan."

The second thing I recommend is not taking on your child's stress. Don't say, "We've applied to schools…" or "We've been accepted," or "We're waiting to hear from…" This is raising the stakes for kids, instead of lowering them, because it makes them feel responsible for themselves and for you. And it co-opts their experience.

Finally, encourage your child not to let the process take over their lives. Applications can be set aside to have fun, spend time with family, and enjoy holiday traditions.

How much should parents be involved?
I feel pretty strongly that applying to college is a good pre-test for going to college. If your child is not motivated to do what needs to be done to apply, then they're likely not ready to go. So if your kid is reluctant to get started, tell them, "Here's the monthly financial contribution we'll require of you if you don't go to college. What jobs will you apply for to make this contribution to our household?" If they say "mowing lawns," then that's what they need to do. And you need to let them.

Your child should be the primary driver of the college application process. As a parent, you can be a proofreader or editor. But don't, for example, do the legwork for getting letters of recommendation. If a student isn't able or willing to do the kind of prioritizing and time management that applying to college requires, then they won't have those skills in college.

If you have a kid who has special needs and gets learning support in high school that will continue in college, then you can assist them in ways that are commensurate with the kind of support they will get on campus.

How do I stop that sick feeling I get when I think about how much I'm going to miss her?
Practice in small doses now. The inclination is to hold them tighter and closer. Instead, let them go spend a weekend at a friend's house or take small trips away from you. This way, both of you will learn the strategies you need to keep in touch as well as the resiliency you need to be apart.

I never let on to my mom that I was sad or homesick at college. I know that homesickness is to be expected, but I still worry about her experiencing it.
If your child is homesick, take it for the amazing compliment that it is. You've done a great job bonding with your child, and you're likely to have a close relationship with her in adulthood. But it is really hard when they go away. Also, homesick kids are thinking about their families. And when they're thinking about their families, they are less likely to engage in risky behavior.

Remember: For 18 years, our kids are on loan. Now we're giving them back to themselves, slowly.

My conversation with Dr. G definitely helped. Since her dad and I divorced, I have been slowly letting go of Taylor, at least temporarily, for more than a decade, because she's lived in two households. Sure, she's never been more than a few minutes away, aside from summer programs in other states. Next year, it will likely be just a few hours. It helps to think of her going to college as moving along a continuum that we are already on.

It also helps to frame Taylor's leaving for college as a gain for her and not a loss for me. Like Dr. G said, I don't want to co-opt her experience. I recall now that my annoyance with my mother stemmed in part from the fact that she centered herself in my college process – her sadness, her fears, her need to keep me close. As a mother, now I can relate to all of those feelings. But after spending 18 years as a safe place for Taylor to land, I now look forward to watching her take flight.