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Helping Teens Grow Through the College Admissions Process

When families start the college admission process can vary based on each student, family and other considerations. Some begin the very early stages of college admissions in late middle or early high school, while others wait until a student’s junior or even senior year to get the ball rolling.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to this process or its timing, but at MAIA we tend to recommend rising juniors or rising seniors have college admissions on their radar and begin to put a plan in place as they move toward this goal.

Regardless of when the process begins, for many teens the college admissions process can be a high stakes, stressful time. It’s a huge rite of passage, and one that can come with a lot of anxiety attached to it.

“Students, no matter how well they’re doing in high school, have a similar fear, which is that, ‘I will not get into any college or university,’” says Sharon Thomas, founder and director of MAIA Education Resource Center.

As teens start to look ahead to college and all that comes along with it – living away from home, being apart from their parents and siblings and current friend group, and entering a more independent phase of life overall – the role their parents play in setting the tone for the college exploration and application period can make all the difference.

Sharon goes on to advise parents to remind teens that they have support during this time, but that the student also has a distinct part to play. “We do have a role in guiding them to be successful, and they have a role, too, in that success.”

The good news is the college application process can be an ideal time to encourage growth and confidence in your teen, laying the groundwork for skills they can reach for again and again throughout adulthood. Here are a few things to focus on as you help your child navigate this chapter while also arming them with skills they will continue to use long after high school:

Set realistic expectations with your teenager.

This can be an overwhelming and unfamiliar time for students and their parents alike, so starting with the goal-setting phase is critical. When goals and a timeline are put into place with clear responsibilities assigned to both teens and parents, all players are clear on their tasks.

“What we find in the literature is that having clear goals and expectations can increase motivation,” says neuropsychologist Dr. Peter Pramataris, founder & director of Pramataris & Associates.

Time management will be key during this phase, so be sure to discuss with your teen how balancing an academic workload, extracurriculars, and applying to college can co-exist without becoming all consuming. Together, you can plan an overarching schedule and then put together a more specific plan at the start of each week. This way, parents and teens will be on the same page and know what each of their roles are throughout the process.

Of course, a reality of the college application process is rejection. Disappointment never feels great, but it can be especially jarring to a high-performing teen who hasn’t experienced it much – if at all – up to this point. Dr. Pramataris recommends parents have a conversation with their child about how not getting accepted to certain colleges will likely be part of this experience for them, and help them be proactive about dealing with that potential scenario.

This helps prepare students for the challenging parts of the college application process, but also for inevitable disappointments they will encounter in future chapters of their life. If handled well, it allows teens to see firsthand that those experiences can be hard, but that they are equipped to overcome them, too.

“Having a backup plan for rejection and discussing it in advance takes the shock out of it…they know they have a Plan B they can slide right into in response to that,” Dr. Pramataris says. “You’re forecasting the experience for them, and then you’re helping them work constructively around it.”

Foster a growth mindset.

Having a growth mindset is a skill that will serve your teen well for the rest of their life, and the college application process provides an opportunity to practice that skill.

“A fixed mindset comes from a place where intelligence is static,” says Dr. Pramataris. “When you have a fixed mindset, you tend to be more avoidant of challenges, you give up easier. With a growth mindset, you embrace challenges, you see effort as a path to mastery, and you learn from your mistakes.”

The college application process will quite possibly be the first complex decision in what will be a series of complex decisions in your child’s life. You as the parent can help your child approach this complex decision with a growth mindset by modeling things like positive self-talk and resiliency.

Encourage self-reflection.

The ability to take stock of an experience and truly unpack it will equip your teen to have good self-awareness and perspective. During the college application process, you can encourage them to practice this skill by doing things like journaling or making a video log of their experience. Remind them that self-reflection can extend well beyond just school and their academic life.

Another way to help foster this skill in your teen is to do more listening than talking at times. Really listen to their feedback and analysis, and let them know it’s okay for them to change their mind and to talk things out with you. After all, ultimately this is their life – you are there to be their advisor and number one fan.

Self-reflection also includes taking the time to celebrate the wins and joys in life. During the college application process, help your teen recognize milestones along the way and encourage them to celebrate both the big and small ones. Learning to see and acknowledge those achievements in life is a gift you can give your child during this time.

Provide opportunities for autonomy.

Perhaps one of the biggest things that comes to mind when we think of college students is this: independence. For the first time in most teens’ lives, they find themselves separated from their parents when they begin college.

To help teens prepare for that looming independence, the college application process provides a chance for parents to let go of the reins in a significant way.

“Autonomy-supportive climates lead to intrinsic motivation, more classroom participation, and more achievement…so you want to give teens some freedom to choose which colleges they want to apply to, what their essays will be about,” says Dr. Pramataris. “Let them take the lead in contacting admissions offices or setting up campus visits.”

After all, your teen will soon be living away from you at college and making most of their decisions on their own. You can foster feelings of confidence when you give them time to truly try on some of that independence well before they leave home.

You’ve got this!

Remember: Although the college application process can feel stressful and daunting, it also provides an abundance of opportunities for your child to develop awareness, skills, and experience that they can take with them not just to college but into the rest of their life.

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