It’s college decision time and if you find the whole college decision process overwhelming and stressful, you’re not alone. Even if your senior has their plans all set, there still may be a few bumps in the journey ahead. During their freshman year of college they may realize the workload is much more difficult than they expected or find they don’t like being so far from home. The truth is, these years of letting go and letting our kids fly can bring about some heavy tension in both their hearts and ours.
Missing Fun and Major Changes
Through the course of my son’s senior year, I have felt this tension mount. I have wondered when we will get to the fun, carefree moments we hoped would mark the end of this bittersweet chapter. So, I took a chance I wasn’t alone. Thankfully, my senior mom friends embraced the invitation of a night out from the whole college decision process. As our evening progressed, the conversations couldn’t help but veer to what our hearts and minds were really focused on, the big decisions ahead for our kids. While we were all at various points with our high school seniors, some having already committed to their schools, some still awaiting decisions on their applications, and some having it narrowed down to a few options, there was one common thread between us all—we were in for a significant change. We all understood the blessing of having choices, still we felt the responsibility to help our kids navigate it all well. A seismic shift was about to happen whether we were ready or not.
The Big Myth
As we sat together with our glasses of wine in hand and trepidation on our hearts, I shared what seemed to be the feeling at the center of it all. For some reason it felt like our kids had to have everything figured out for their whole life right now. These were the messages being downloaded during this whole college decision process—that we were behind, we didn’t do enough, and they needed to choose without having all the pieces to the puzzle. But we knew in our hearts it wasn’t true. We knew what we had learned ourselves, the way all the best life lessons happen—through trial and error, through the twists and turns of the unexpected things; not one of us had things work out exactly the way we thought they would. There were doors that closed, windows that opened, and new paths that emerged. In our group of about twenty moms, not one of us was doing the exact thing she went to college to do. I had a hunch there were more of us.
Crowd-Sourcing and Holding Plans Loosely
Since then, I have asked more friends near and far if they’re doing exactly what they went to college to do. The majority have confirmed that they are either doing something different than they went to school for or in a different place than they thought they would be. There’s often a story behind their answer, with could-have-beens and glad-it-wasn’ts on the path to something almost always described as better. I have heard countless stories of twenty-year plans that didn’t work out, but the mid-forties version of ourselves have not only been reconciled to it all, but able to see it in the light of time and experience as a good thing. So if this is true, if we’re all doing okay and we’ve figured it out along the way, then why are we so stressed? And more importantly, why are our kids?
Hoping They’ll Land Where They’re Meant to
In part, I think it’s because we envisioned this next step as an exciting adventure. As we set out on the journey with our seniors, we see lanes of possibility and streets of hope. They’ve been preparing for this all along. And we’ve watched our kids work hard and we want it to be worth something, to translate in the next leg of their journey. We desire what we’ve always hoped for as parents—for others to see in them, affirm in them, what we’ve known to be there all along. Ultimately, we try really hard to believe they’ll land where they are meant to, but we’re also wise to know it may look differently than we planned. The end of this journey seems more like a harsh push, not just for them but for us too. We can see the off ramp in the distance and like that first time getting off a ski lift, we wonder, why didn’t anyone warn me about this part? It can be exciting, but it is also awkward and scary, and we realize in the end we just have to go for it and jump anxious, together.
I also think it’s because the admissions process in itself is stressful, there’s a lot of work and then even more waiting. It’s designed to feel exclusive and it doesn’t fully align with the spirit of inclusion and acceptance our kids have been building and fostering throughout their school years. While the Common App has streamlined the process, there is still room for it all to become more simple and straightforward. Because for many of our kids the college decision process is not as one-dimensional as the outdated FAFSA form. There are more complexities and factors to consider.
Navigating the Rejection (and Acceptance)
Still, every family experiences something unexpected or difficult during this whole college decision process. Maybe your daughter gets into the school their best friend has wanted to go to her whole life or perhaps you are consoling your daughter as her best friend is admitted. Maybe your son gets into his dream reach school, but not only is the tuition highly unaffordable, the school doesn’t offer much help in the form of scholarships or financial aid. He feels like he is settling if he decides on the less expensive and seemingly less prestigious, option. Why did I work so hard?, he wonders. Maybe your child is first generation to attend college and they are excited to be making this leap for their whole family, but feeling the anxiety of the high stakes and pressure to perform well. Perhaps you have the funds, the desired acceptance letter, and the plan in place and you’re feeling quite pleased, but the transition ahead into freshman year is about to have some turbulence. Maybe you do have it all figured out, but you’re just grieving the sadness of it all—your little kid has grown up and you want to hold on awhile longer.
Preying on Our Parental Fears
This whole anxiety-producing college decision process perhaps unintentionally preys on the greatest fears we have as parents— have we prepared them well enough? If we’re really honest, we want to believe the things we have tried to do differently will help lead them to a different outcome. The plan may not have worked for us, but we hope it will for them. Every response, every rejection, deferral or acceptance impacts our heart for better or worse too. We feel everything they do, but we try to remain strong and rooted so they have someone they can lean on, someone who reminds them this will all really be okay in the end.
The Best Advice We Can Accept
That night, as I listened to the sage advice being shared around the room from women I admire and appreciate, I found that we were all on the same page. Collectively, we were in agreement that our kids didn’t have to have it all figured out right now. We rallied together against the ridiculous idea of having life figured out at seventeen or eighteen years of age. We reminded each other that our kids are just getting started, this is a moment in a lifetime of decisions. Yes, it can set them on a trajectory, but it is not everything. We agreed that while we ultimately believe will they land where they are meant to be, and it isn’t as much an ending as it is another milestone and a new beginning.
And The Wisdom to Know What Matters Most
I turned toward my friend sitting next to me as she shared what was helping her son who was feeling intense pressure from it all. He didn’t want to have to decide everything for the rest of his life right now, at this singular moment. It all felt so final and heavy. She reassured him with her wise words, “You don’t have to have it all figured out right now. You can change your school. You can change your major. You can change your mind. You don’t need to know everything right now. We can make adjustments, it’s not all set it stone.” She paused and I could see her love for her son shine through, “I just want him to know we’ll work through it all together, just as we always have.” And it’s true my fellow stressed-out parents, that’s all we really need to have figured out right now, isn’t it?
So, as you work through the choices with your high school senior, and I realize there are very real decisions to make (stay tuned for an upcoming blog post with a super simple formula will help break it down), dare to enjoy these special senior year moments even in the uncertainty. It’s stressful to try and steer them and let them be who they were made to be, when you see the potential pitfalls ahead through eyes of experience. Voice your insight (once) and keep praying over their decisions. Take heart that all the twists and turns life can lead to better places. Be the person you needed along the way. And don’t forget to breathe for you both.
To Our High School Seniors
You may be reading this with your parents, know you are so dear to us and this is such a memorable, magical, milestone year. Fight for every bit of it, will you? And know whatever happens, we will figure it out with you, together.
(If going into the trades or staying local at community college, you are brilliant. We need us all to do the thing we were put here to do, you’re making smart decisions for yourself too).
More Helpful Resources
Dear Son As You Wait to Hear if You’ve Been Accepted (from our Roots and Wings Series)
10 Tips to Make Your Final College Choice
Teens Ask for a Kinder College Admissions Process
For more heartfelt encouragement during this time, sign up here for a prayer and a pep talk every Monday!