Inside: The college admissions process is out of control, but you can gain the power back by doing these seven things with your teens when discussing their post-high school plan.
If you want to have productive conversations with your child, here are great ideas for framing your discussions.
- Start the college conversation earlier than you may think
- Change the terms we use
- Stop believing there is a magic formula for college admissions
- Help your kids understand that college acceptances and rejections are not tied to self-worth
- What is getting into college worth to your teen?
- Be real about your financial situation
- Be open to college alternatives
Recently while scrolling through a college admissions Facebook group, I came across a post that broke my heart.
The mom talked about her daughter, who was a high-achieving student. Her stats were phenomenal. She had a 4.5 GPA, 1500 on the SATs, nine APs, president of everything at their school, volunteered at shelters, went on a mission trip, etc.
She applied to ten top schools and did not get into a single one. She applied last-minute to her state school and is waiting to hear back. The student is now in a deep depression, feels like a failure, and is struggling simply to get out of bed in the morning.
Her mom mentioned that the girl had high school burn out. She worked relentlessly for the last two years on her grades and community service. While her daughter felt dejected, the mom guiltily felt relieved as she was unsure if she could pay for her “dream school.”
My heart ached for this family who did so much right. It reminded me of a meme I recently saw: “Your life is good. It’s the system that’s broken.”
That sums up the college admissions process right now: BROKEN.
Competitive. Costly. Stressful. Unfair. Illogical. Depressing.
Yet we continue to bang our heads against the doors of these “top” institutions hoping for a different result for our kids.
It’s the literal definition of insanity right now.
Why some kids get in and why some kids don’t is a mystery at the top schools while other institutions are struggling to keep their doors open.
The college admissions process is spinning out of control
We live in a very child-centric society. We love our children fiercely, and we want our kids to have “the best.” Sometimes it’s because we want our kids to have more than we had. Other times it is for bragging rights. And in some instances, we believe that the best is the only thing good enough for our kids.
When this comes to higher education, this often includes a name-brand college that people recognize. You may believe that the prestige or connections that come with these institutions is the only choice for your child–and that the cost is worth it.
This desire to get into the best school–whether it’s an Ivy, top state school, or prestigious liberal arts college–is causing parents and their kids to do crazy things.
You sign up for test prep courses and AP classes that need tutors. Your kid loses sleep trying to start their own business and earn volunteer hours. They stress about every grade and worry about every line on their college essay.
And in this age of college prep schools and admissions consultants and professional essay writers, when grade inflation is at an all-time high and sophisticated marketing tools track every move, while students continue to strive for perfection at all costs and teen mental health is in crisis mode, admissions at the top 100 U.S. colleges hit an all-time low.
But despite how it may feel, it doesn’t mean we have lost all control as parents and students. It just means we have to start changing the conversation regarding college admissions.
How do we change this toxic narrative about college admissions
One thing that is extremely problematic in the admissions process is the lack of conversations about college between parents and their students. It involves combining bravery and common sense with the belief that for most of our kids, where they go to college is not who they are–or what they will become.
It also means honest assessments of your student’s capabilities, what they want out of their post-high school experience, and what your family can afford. That means considering all options with an open mind. Not every student is suited for a traditional four-year college program (or maybe aren’t equipped to handle it immediately after high school graduation) or maybe an alternative to college would be a better answer.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about what college is the “best.” Your teen will be hearing from grandparents, teachers, coaches, peers, social media, and even the colleges themselves who use sophisticated marketing strategies to reach potential students.
The goal is to push out the noise from the outside voices so you can focus on making the right choice for your unique child.
Here are seven tips to help you start effectively discussing college with your teen:
Start the College Conversation Earlier Thank You May Think
There is more emphasis on college nowadays, and even kids as young as elementary school have opinions. They know that certain schools have reputations for sports or that someone famous went there. They understand that some schools are more prestigious than others.
By middle school, it’s common to place students on “academic tracks” to meet a certain milestone by the time they get to high school to meet the requirements for certain competitive colleges. Some college-prep high schools even plan so students can apply to certain majors early in their senior year.
All these subtle moves tell your child that they need to do more and be more if they want to get into a “good college.” As parents, if we’re not addressing these decisions, then If as parents, then we’re allowing many outside influences to shape our child’s perceptions and expectations about what it takes to go to college and the types of colleges they should want to attend.
Instead, we should be engaging our kids to better understand what they are hearing or being told and then filtering that information in healthier ways. Talking about college doesn’t mean your child needs to know what they want to do with their life. It only means that you are gathering information to make educated decisions.
Talking to your child as early as middle school about what college is and what it can offer is a good first step.
Change The Terms We Use To Describe Prospective Colleges
The best advice we’ve received is to avoid the term “dream school.”
Some kids begin talking about their dream schools as early as their elementary years. It may come from a parent, a well-meaning relative, or a TV show (hello Gillmore Girls). They may read about it in a book or see their best friend wearing a sweatshirt.
Wherever it comes from, it gives our kids the idea that there is only one college that is meant for them. They start believing that is the only place they will be happy and successful.
It’s similar to the concept of a soul mate and, in many cases, is nothing more than a fairytale. There is no such thing as a perfect college, and often the reason students think a school is their “dream school” has nothing to do with what will make them happy or successful. It’s about an image or legacy or rating by a publication they’ve never read.
But the language we use to describe colleges has flaws beyond the idea of a “dream school.” Somewhere around the first part of junior year, high schools around the country will have their students create their college lists. They will be asked to put their schools into three categories: Reach, Target, and Safety.
The idea is a reach school is one that is more difficult to get into with lower acceptance rates and might also be a financial reach. Target schools are colleges where the student has a fair likelihood of being accepted. Safety schools have high acceptance rates and where students are all but guaranteed to get accepted.
The first problem is that these terms are almost solely based on a student’s likelihood of acceptance. There is little discussion about any other factors regarding why these schools would or would not be a good fit for any young adult.
The other issue with these terms is that they create a sense of worthiness in the students’ (and often the parents’) minds. The minute we refer to a school as a “safety” school, it sounds like a consolation prize. It’s often a backup plan or something needed in the worst-case scenario.
It gives students the impression that attending a safety school means they weren’t good enough and failed academically. This term particularly did a disservice to students in 2022, when many were rejected from not only their reach schools but target and safety schools as well.
In many cases, students only chose safety schools because they were required to as part of the list-building exercise. Most high schoolers never saw them as potential options, let alone good fits. In many cases, families didn’t invest in visiting these schools or even researching them at all.
At the end of the day, we have to get eliminate these labels. Students need to remain open to many institutions, and the competitiveness of their acceptance rates should be far down the list of reasons to attend.
The best vocabulary we can use with our kids is to talk to them about finding the right fit school. This means finding colleges where they will thrive based on factors that are better indicators of student satisfaction and success, such as location, size, culture, degree availability, student support services, cost, and financial and merit aid.
We like this book, The Price You Pay for College, by Ron Lieber as a great starting off point to discuss what you want to get out of college and the price you should be willing to pay for it.
Stop Believing There Is A Magic Formula For College Acceptance
Not only should parents read it, but teenagers should too. There is a myth that there is a formula for getting high schoolers into a “good” college. The plan includes elaborate academic planning starting in middle school, a ridiculous number of AP/IB/DE courses, an insane afterschool schedule consisting of extra-curriculars and volunteer work that requires a logistics manager, and endless test prep to obtain as close to a perfect ACT/SAT score as possible.
This is not a formula for student success. It is a formula for disaster, and it is destroying our teens’ mental health and any enjoyment of their high school experience.
We’re burning out our high school students before they even get to college. Plus, by having them spend years of their young lives checking off boxes instead of truly engaging in the learning process, they never have a chance to explore their interests and discover true passions.
What we should be doing instead is teaching our teens to have a better understanding of what is realistic based on their unique capabilities and limitations. We should encourage them to try new things and not worry about getting a “B” and how that could ruin their college chances. Teens should be choosing to get involved in activities or volunteer work because they are excited about it, not because it will look good on a college application.
High school is a time of significant personal growth and development, as well as a time for teens to better understand themselves and their identity. It’s also the last few years of their childhood, and they should have some fun and be kids.
If we give our teens a chance to forge their paths, they are likely to be healthier young adults at graduation, but also make choices that better reflect who they are and fit their needs.
Help Your Kids (And You) To Understand That Acceptance and Rejections Are Not A Measure Of Self-Worth
Colleges don’t base acceptance and rejections each year on standardized criteria that never change.
You and your student need to understand that colleges are often looking at applicants to create a diverse incoming class that fits into some unknown desired mix of students for each year.
That means they want specific types of students to round out their student body. For example, a school may need a cello player from a southern state that is a first-generation college student who wants to study science or a female softball player that wants to major in philosophy from the Northeast.
There are also other factors beyond your control. When it comes to the Ivy League and other highly prestigious universities, no matter what is being said, they are still filling many spots with legacies and other children of economic and political influence. Once they are admitted, along with athletes, the remaining spots in an already limited pool of openings is sparse at best. It is like playing the lottery.
The college a teen attends does not define them or their future opportunities and success. There is overwhelming data that success is an internal factor, and what success looks like varies greatly from person to person.
If becoming a CEO of a Fortune 100 company is your standard, well, guess what? Only 11% of those come from Ivy League Schools.
But for many people, that level of professional achievement is not what they desire. The hours required and the stress are not worth the larger paycheck, or they don’t need a prestigious degree to get the job they want. There are so many careers that our kids will pursue that will allow them to live comfortably, but where they will also find personal fulfillment and flexibility.
Another great read on exactly this subject is: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.
What Is Getting Into a Specific College Worth to Your Teen and Family?
If you have a student that wants to reach for the stars, that is awesome. Just make sure they understand the current dynamics and that even with stellar stats, their are no guarantees. Don’t let them get their heart set on it or think they are a failure if they don’t get in.
Also, ensure they are going after these highly ranked schools for the right reason. They need to understand that these schools come with a competitive environment, demanding course load, and overall intensity and rigor. Students need a certain personality and disposition to thrive in these types of schools.
For many students, especially if they’ve already spent four years maxing themselves out in academic and extra-curricular demands, is another four years of the same thing or worse what they want?
And if the student is already dealing with mental health issues or other challenges, is attending this type of college worth the impact it may have on them psychologically or otherwise?
As they head to college, our teens should expect to work hard and begin to take on more responsibility for their lives as they move towards full adult independence. But at the same time, college should still be fun, and students should have a positive experience.
As parents, we need to make sure our teens are being honest with themselves about the best college for their success and happiness. It’s easy to get caught up in all the marketing and the hype around highly ranked schools, but we should be grounding our young adults, not pushing them into more than they can handle.
Love your kid more than loving that prestigious college sweatshirt.
Be Real About Family Finances And What Is Affordable
Investigate costs early and have conversations up front with your student about what your family can afford as well as the likelihood of financial aid and scholarships. It’s also important to discuss your family’s views on debt. It is common to hear of students earning acceptance into top schools only to find that it is cost-prohibitive to go there. It is unfair to let your children think a school is a possibility and gain acceptance only to find out that they can’t go.
We like the book Debt-Free Degree for a tough and creative look at how to pay for college.
The earlier you have these conversations with your teenager, the more choices you give them.
If scholarships are the only option, then they can choose if they want to put in the work academically to try to attain one (but please be aware, scholarships, especially full-ride scholarships, are not nearly as abundant as many people think for academics or athletics). Check out this post on 6 Hard Truths Every Parent Needs To Hear About College Admissions for other myths about the process.
They can also determine if they want to work during high school and how much to save and help pay for college.
Lastly, you should come up with a list of potential colleges early that would be a good all-around fit, both financially and academically. This ensures your child is looking at schools they can realistically attend rather than falling in love with schools that aren’t an option.
Regarding taking on debt for college, there are wildly different viewpoints on this matter. Some people feel like any debt is a non-starter; others are willing to consider various levels of debt based on major, projected post-college income, and other factors.
But if debt is a consideration, the student should be part of the process. They should know what the interest rate is, whether interest will be accruing during college, and what the monthly payment is likely to be after graduation. Use a college loan calculator so they can visualize what this amount looks like.
And parents should be aware that students can only borrow limited amounts on their own each year. Anything above will require a co-signor, making you responsible for the debt if the student doesn’t pay. Plus, the parent(s) has to have good enough credit to qualify, or the loan will be denied.
A final part of this conversation should be the likelihood of post-graduate education. Will the student need a Master’s degree, a Law Degree, or even a PhD? Suppose additional schooling is likely to be pursued beyond their 4-year degree. In that case, the financial implications of the larger education expenses and debt should play a part in deciding where to go for undergraduate school.
Be Open And Explore Alternatives To A Traditional Four-Year University
As the cost of college continues to grow, many families are seriously looking at options beyond traditional colleges. Do not fall prey to social pressures or stigma about alternatives to college. Trade schools, the military, community colleges, and gap years are not the “easy” way out and are viable, cost-effective options for many students.
Changing the conversation takes brave parents
While the tide seems to be turning and discussions around all of these college alternatives are becoming more common, there is still a lot of hesitancy. Part of the problem is that many students don’t believe they have a choice about going to a four-year college straight out of high school. Many feel it’s what they think their parents expect.
Again, this goes back to the idea that if you want to change the college conversation, you first have to be having these conversations.
Be honest and open with your kids so they will be honest and open with you.
Are you looking for resources and perspectives on Changing the College Conversation? Join our Facebook group here.
Are you in the thick of raising your tweens and teens? You may like this book by Whitney Fleming, the co-owner of Parenting Teens & Tweens: Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love: Essays about Raising Teens in Today’s Complex, Chaotic World.
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