How to get through the application process without screwing up the parent-child relationship

In every other aspect of his life, S18 is completely independent and self-motivated. But when it comes to college planning, it has been really hard to get him to do anything. He dragged his feet when it came time to make a list, when it came time to visit colleges, etc. Now it is crunch time, and he still has an “I’ll get to it when I get to it” attitude. I don’t think he can afford to have that attitude because he has a boatload of ECs, a rigorous class schedule that will take up a lot of time this year, and an ambitious list of colleges to apply to, many of which have November 1 deadlines (early action and priority consideration for financial aid and scholarships). Between his attitude and my anxiety about getting things done and about being able to afford college (which we can’t if he doesn’t meet the priority consideration deadlines for FA and scholarships), there have been a lot of clashes between us, and those are becoming more frequent.

I am trying as best I can to balance the need to let him lead this process against the need to make sure he gets everything done, done reasonably well, and done in a timely manner. But every time the subject of college comes up, he bristles. He clearly doesn’t want to talk about it and I don’t understand that. He says he wants to go to college. He has done everything he can so far – taken rigorous coursework with high marks, gotten very good (though not tippy top) ACTs and SATs, invested time in quality ECs and community service, etc. – to make himself competitive for admission and, at some places, for merit aid. I’m not sure what is going on.

He seems to have hit a particular roadblock with essays and frustration is at an all-time high for both of us. I gave him the Common App prompts when they first came out and told him to think about them. Shortly after that, his English class worked on college essays, and he had a hard time coming up with ideas. I helped him brainstorm about possible topics. He wasn’t happy with any of the essays he wrote at that time (he chose a topic just to have something to turn in) and didn’t want to use them for the Common App. Back in April, we talked about the need for him to have an essay ready to go by August 1, given application deadlines and all the competing demands for his time this year. Then I left him alone to figure out the topic and write the essay. I knew he probably wouldn’t have the essay done by August 1, but wanted him to have a clear idea of the time frame he needed to shoot for and I was hoping he would get it done before school starts on August 14, since time will be a factor after that. This summer, I have occasionally asked him (he would say “constantly grilled” him) about his progress, and he always assured me he was “working on it.”

Last night, I read the essay he has been working on, according to him, “all summer” (but I can recall lots of evenings out and days spent listening to podcasts, such that I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say he worked on his essay “all summer”) and honestly it wasn’t very good. The general idea has a lot of potential, but the essay was not executed very well at all. (It was mostly about someone else and it wasn’t clear how anything he wrote related to S18.) When he talks about what he wants to do with this essay, it sounds so much better than what he had on paper. I guess S18 could tell what my reaction was, because I had barely gotten through reading it and hadn’t had a chance to formulate what to even say when he took his tablet away from me and left the room, clearly upset. Meanwhile, I am frustrated because I don’t see how he’s going to be able to meet deadlines if he doesn’t at least have this essay out of the way.

Clearly, S18 is stressed out. Clearly, I am stressed out. I don’t know what to do. At this point, I am more worried about preserving our relationship than about where he goes to school. But at the same time, he has worked so hard to get to this point. He finally has some preferences about where he wants to go to school, and I don’t want to see him blow the application process.

Anyone else had this kind of experience with your child during the college application process and if so how did you handle it?

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You sound like me and D16 the summer before applications. She refused to work on her essays all summer. She didn’t have anyone at school to guide her on the essays either. D16 did not have good application results in the US. Her results were fine in Canada, where we living at the time, but she had wanted to move back to the States. She was very stressed starting in December of her final high school year and continued to be stressed through her first semester of college. She didn’t want to leave high school, where she had been pretty successful for the great unknown. She was also not ready for mom to move far away, which I did once she graduated high school. She was not ready to cut the umbilical cord.

I ended up offering her a gap or postgraduate year. She didn’t take the offer, but I still think it would have been good for her. She is young for her year and I think she could have used another year before she went away.

Maybe sit down with your son and just find out what he’s thinking about going off to college. Maybe avoiding the essays is his way of avoiding thinking about the changes that are coming.

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Both of my kids deferred to me to handle the scutwork. Keeping information in order – schools (and school literature and forms), financial aid information, tests and test dates (and scores), application/finaid due dates. Planning visits to colleges. You can put all this on a spreadsheet. It wasn’t annoying to my kids; it was a relief. I handled the mechanics, made sure they didn’t miss deadlines, managed the information flow and the money aspect of everything.

What I could not do is write essays for them. I could edit and comment on their drafts – and I did – but I wouldn’t touch the text, rewrite anything. In reality they don’t need that many distinct essays. So don’t despair if the first draft isn’t great – especially if junior realizes it. Both of my kids wrote decent autobiographic-type essays. Not exciting but clear and informative. We were not using the Common App at that time. Essays need to display a student’s interests, motivations and ambitions, achievements, insights, experience. In very little space. Telling a story in which they themselves as the key figures or agents. My daughter’s essay for art school did something important that wasn’t specified in the prompt: she talked about how people react to her art and what she learns from criticism. My son talked about perspectives and skills he gained from being a (champion) policy debater – why should a kid living in a mid-sized town in the Midwest care about China’s Three Gorges Dam? Essays aren’t lists of achievements and experiences (that goes elsewhere in the application).

For your own sanity, cut down the kid’s responsibilities. YOU do the worrying about financial aid. HE does what only he can do. But this obviously also involves choosing a list of colleges, and making the ultimate decisions. My son left a lot of the choosing of lists to me and my wife. (He was extremely busy and in the middle of debate season; on the road some weekends.) We knew his tastes and we knew the college scene. He didn’t actually visit the college he ultimately chose to attend until he did an overnight on “admitted students day.” The next morning, he declared “This will do.” And it was done.

My daughter also allowed me to gather info on art schools; she learned a lot herself by attending pre-college summer art labs. We agreed on which were the best and which were fit to her talents and preferences (for location in particular). The biggest part of the application process for her wasn’t essays and paperwork. It was preparing her portfolio. That would show her talent and perspectives more than anything she would write in essays. She took responsibility for this, but we also helped by taking her to a couple of National Portfolio Day events at which she got useful feedback and advice.

So again: they did things that only they could do; we did the rest.

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We were very fortunate in that the college counselor at my son’s school was the ultimate bad cop with respect to her kids’ application processes. But we didn’t know that before the senior year started. My son takes lazy to an art form, so when he talked about his dreams for his future in a more general way, I listened. Then when he wasn’t moving forward, I told him that I remembered he had these aspirations, and he needed to go to college to meet them. I reminded him that none of it was my doing, but there were requirements and timelines that everyone had to meet, not just him, and I would be happy to talk him through the process, but other than paying and proofreading, I wouldn’t apply for him. He hissed and moaned, and his counselor embarrassed him a couple of times, but things did get done, and he was very happy with the outcome.

Strangely, he’s been a different person since he has gone to college. Mature and responsible. Also a beard, but we don’t discuss that!

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