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Challenge: Back to School 2020

4 Ways Parents Can Embrace and Empower Their High School Senior’s College Decision

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If you have a senior who is waiting for college admission decisions or preparing to start college this fall, congratulations!

Both parents and students have invested years of hard work, planning, preparing, and in the parents’ case, supporting, to reach this point. Of course, this year families have navigated a completely different senior year and college application process. While some of the challenges are ongoing, you and your senior deserve to embrace and celebrate this time. In many ways, the college decision is an important milestone not only for seniors but also for the entire family.

Here are some suggestions for parents as you navigate the process of college decision-making, while embracing the milestone and supporting your senior!

1. Check in with your teens and celebrate the educational milestone

How is your senior is feeling about the impending notifications? Many students feel anxious, excited, worried, ambivalent or even scared; a jumble of emotions. It’s also normal for seniors to feel that school acceptance is a measure of their academic caliber, intelligence and even self-worth. Most students also want to meet or exceed their family’s or peers’ expectations. And finally, some of their friends may have already received acceptance notifications, so the pressure may be even more intense. With all of these challenges, it’s helpful to let your child know that it’s natural to experience a myriad of emotions while waiting.

Let your seniors know that you’re proud of them, not because of any particular acceptance notice or school choice, but because they’ve worked hard to reach this important juncture in their development. This year has been particularly difficult because of Covid-19 challenges; their senior year has been atypical in so many ways.

Acknowledge the year’s challenges and sense of loss, while reminding them that they’ve reached this point in their education through perseverance and resilience.

2. Help high school seniors visualize their growth in the next four years—see the big picture!

Once admissions decisions start arriving, it’s natural to focus on which schools accepted (or did not accept) your senior. Excitement after acceptance, disappointment after rejection, or the anxiety of being wait-listed can understandably dominate and set the tone for college discussions.

However, there are perhaps more important questions for your senior:

  • What type of person do you want to be in four years?

  • What do you want to learn in four years?

  • If you have a role model, how do you think you can be more like that person?

  • What types of education or career preparation do you want by the time you graduate?

  • How much financial independence do you want after you finish college?

Invite them to share their dreams, hopes, and aspirations. Help them visualize who they want to be beyond the college choice.

These questions are difficult to ask and to answer. They may not lead to a specific school choice, yet they can still inform and influence college decisions. Thinking on these questions will help students frame their college decision in the context of their personal and educational aspirations, and will likely help them to shape their college experience ONCE they make the decision.

3. Empower your high school seniors (and support their decision-making process)

Once the admission notifications arrive, students may have several college choices. And the process of making the decision can be just as important as the decision itself. At this point, seniors need to determine the key factors that will influence their decision, and find answers to their questions.

For example, financing a post-secondary education is usually a primary consideration. Most seniors will need help in understanding the financial implications of their college decisions as they research loans, aid from the school, and scholarship options. Here’s where your concrete support (and life experience!) can assist.

At the same time, empower them with a sense of agency in their decision, so they can take ownership of their education and become fully engaged and invested in the experience. Acknowledge that there is no perfect decision, but support them in making the best decision they can. Doing so will ensure they embark on the next chapter of independence feeling confident in their decision-making abilities.

4. Embrace the change in your relationship with your senior

Going to college often marks a significant shift in the parent-child relationship. Many students move away from the family home, experience greater independence, and take the first steps toward adulthood. While parents are usually proud of their seniors, it’s natural to feel unexpected emotions: a sense of loss over your child’s leaving home, anxiety about how your senior will fare at college, and even disappointment if you had specific college expectations. But it’s also a time when some parents feel excited about the prospect of gaining more time for themselves, for their own interests, hobbies, or work. That’s perfectly normal, too. As humans, we’re capable of complex feelings and it’s understandable to experience a range of feelings about your child’s impending college departure. Take time to connect with and process those feelings; as you support your child during this time of transition, it’s important to acknowledge and embrace your own new chapter.

Parents, you have loved, cared for, and nurtured your high school senior for 18 or more years. This is an exciting time of change and growth for both of you. While changes are not always easy, they often create opportunities for deeper conversations and connection, re-setting your relationship dynamics. Hopefully you will be able to create such moments with your high school senior in the coming weeks and months.


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