How Parents Can Make It Through the College Admissions Process


"So much has changed since I went through this process." 

This is the most common statement I hear from parents about their child applying to college. They feel lost and a bit out of practice. While I am very comfortable living in that world, I can relate to "parent fear" all too well.

I was as far out of my comfort zone as I could get this past weekend when my oldest child, Sophie, had her Bat Mitzvah. It had been years since I had my own, and I said aloud way too many times to count: "So much has changed."
The good news is that we pulled it off. Actually, Sophie pulled it off. My role was to be her mom, boots on the ground, organization queen, and Bat Mitzvah-detail expert so that we didn't miss anything. There are a lot of parallels between planning a family celebration like a Bat Mitzvah and the process of applying to college—lots of planning, some tears, and pure elation. 

So for all those families that feel behind or lost, here is what you need to know (and I what I needed to know this past weekend) to get through our kids' milestones:

1. Don't worry about what everyone else is doing; focus on what's right for you and your child.

My good friend, Julie, kept reminding me of this throughout the planning of Sophie's Bat Mitzvah. While I was feeling bad that we didn't follow the traditional "rules" like having a luncheon after the service, Julie told me that anything goes when it comes to your kid. And she was so right. If you have financial limitations or want to make sure that your child takes the right classes and pursues what is important to them rather than the colleges, don't worry about judgment. Celebrate what's important and make sure the colleges on the list support this!
"Celebrate what's important to your child and make sure the colleges on their list support this" TWEET THIS

2. Preparation is everything.

It matters when it comes to putting in the hard work to get the best grades and preparing for standardized tests. There is no substitute when it comes to this. The student has to be invested. If not, they won't see the results they were hoping for. Over the past few months, I consciously scaled back Sophie's commitments. She took a break from her nightly swim practices in order to have more time for homework, learning her Torah portion, and more sleep. It paid off.  

3. The two biggest skills students need in applying to college are not what you think.

They aren't test-taking skills or knowing somebody important! Believe it or not, students need strong writing and public speaking skills to apply to college. If you have both of them, you can overcome just about anything! A college that requires essays and puts a lot of weight on the college interview (TIP: look for colleges that offer on-campus interviews with admissions staff), will take a chance on a student who presents herself on paper and in person incredibly well.
As Sophie was instructed by our rabbi, even if you mess up on your Torah portion, keep going! And when she gave her speech during the service, she owned that stage (or bima if you know what I'm talking about!). 

4. When you feel overwhelmed, seek out a professional!

Whether you hire an independent college counselor to help your child through the process or rely on a trusted teacher or college counselor at your child's high school, swallow your pride and lean on them. While parents go through the college process only once with each child, these individuals do this for a living dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of times a year. It's part of the expert's job to know what to do. And this is when I feel the need to thank our dynamic DJ, totally-in-touch photographer (look at that photograph!), and our florist (who turned a ho-hum space into something magical). Our experts crushed it just as Sophie did that day.

Need help navigating the college admissions process with your child?
Join Application Nation, a suite of private Facebook groups hosted by Sara Harberson.


5. It's not about how many things you do; it's about how well you do a few things.

Please don't sign up your child for a bunch of pay-to-play summer programs; don't encourage them to join a ton of clubs or apply to a long list of colleges. Just have them focus on doing meaningful and authentic work with a handful of things that truly matter. Quality always means more than quantity. We chose carefully when it came to guests, extra entertainment, and where we spent our money on the Bat Mitzvah. We wanted to stay true to who Sophie is.
So much has changed about applying to college and planning a teenager's coming of age celebration. Yet so much has stayed the same. Things may look a little sleeker when it comes to applications and even photo booths, but the core beliefs remain consistent whether you applied to college in 1999 or 2019.
Keep it all in perspective. Create an environment that makes your child confident. And encourage them that hard work pays off—now more than ever. There is so much to celebrate now and in the future! Mazel Tov for making it this far.
Photograph courtesy of Nick Gould Photography.