A Better Way to Look at College Admissions:

A Better Way to Look at College Admissions:

Marilee Jones’ Four Rules of the Game for Parents:

Given that this is the most competitive era of college admissions in history, and that you can control neither the outcome nor your child’s anxiety about the outcome, I’d like to suggest a better way to look at the college admissions process and four specific rules of the game to help you navigate it gracefully.

Sure, you can do what most people do now:  listen to everyone with an opinion about the topic, feel depressed, get upset with your child for not being more proactive, get depressed, feel as if you have to fight for your child’s very survival, get really depressed.  Or you can see the college admissions process in a different way.

The college admissions process is the closest thing to an initiation that we have in this secular society. There are initiations in many religious traditions, but not in our secular sphere.  Initiations are designed to help us formally allow our children to grow up and join the adult world.

An initiation is a process and not an event.  It always carries an element of anxiety and fear.  It calls on all skills previously learned, and most importantly, it can only be done by the initiate and no one else.  It is the process by which our kids are granted permission to show us what they can do, to show us that they can manage anxiety and still function successfully, that they are ready for adulthood.

At the very moment that we should be cheering them and helping them though the process, some of us actually cripple them by not trusting them to write the best essay, to interview well, to make the best choices of college.  We can send signals, overt and covert, that can make our children feel that they are not ready, not truly capable of applying to college in our absence.  We see it as helping out – helping them with editing or even writing their essay, helping them connect with the ‘right’ people who can get them in, taking over the planning and management of the process.  But to our kids, the message can often feel as if they are not good enough, not smart enough, not mature enough, not ready to go through the process on their own, at the very time when they must prove publicly that they are ready to be an adult.  By jumping in to help them in this way, we are essentially tackling them at the knees when they need to stand the straightest.  We are actually hurting them in their moment of glory.

You do have a role in your child’s initiation and make no mistake – your role is crucial.  I’ve outlined four basic steps, rules of the game, to help guide you through the entire process in a graceful way.  They may seem simple, but like all Zen-like principles, they are actually quite challenging.  If you follow these rules, however, you will not only model good adult behavior for your child – the main point of the exercise – but you will also maintain an excellent relationship with your child that will last for years to come. Remember, you are modeling for your child how an adult acts under stress and your child is watching you all the time.

Rule 1: Watch your Language:

Vow that you will never again refer to your child’s application or choices in the first person plural, as in, “We’re applying to Yale and Georgetown.” Your child is applying to college, not you.  It is their application process, not yours.  Every time you use the more inclusive language of ‘our’ or ‘we’, you are sending the message to your child that they are not quite ready for their initiation, that they can’t manage it on their own.  You are taking away their independence, holding them back just when they should be gaining strength to show the world that they are capable of handling the anxiety of describing themselves on paper, submitting it to strangers to be judged on unknown parameters and then being publicly judged with an acceptance, a waitlist or a rejection. It’s very easy to say ‘our’ and ‘we’.  I still find myself doing it occasionally.  But stop yourself every time you hear yourself say it, back up and rephrase the sentence.  “My child is applying to Yale and Georgetown.”

Rule 2: Watch your Attitude

Teenagers need to vent sometimes and thank your lucky stars if yours does that with you.  But if they complain about their teachers or their guidance counselor or how unfairly they are being treated in life, get into neutral and just listen.  It’s so important that you keep your attitudes about their situation in check because your opinions can contaminate their experience.  You can ask how you might help them, but otherwise, you should be modeling the old phrase, “been there, done that, life goes on and life is good.” In other words, keep reminding them that no matter what happens, everything will be fine.  When they are most frightened, you must ground them and help them stay calm, not spool them up with your own anxiety.  Stay steady and in neutral.  Their problems are not for you to solve.

Rule 3: Watch your Behavior

Behavior often follows attitude.  We know that sometimes a simple call from us could fix our child’s problem, but what would they learn from that?  If we had carried them everywhere to keep them from falling when they were first learning to walk, they wouldn’t be the healthy functional walkers they are today.  Humans learn best by trial and error. Since it’s your child’s initiation, vow never to intervene in their application process.  Vow never to do their work for them – ever.  Never threaten to sue anyone, or intimidate or act in any way like a jerk, because you’ll only regret that later and you will have missed the chance to model good adult behavior for your child who is watching you all the time to see how it’s done.  Cheer them from the sidelines.

Rule 4: Celebrate No Matter What

Parents frequently (and inadvertently, I’m sure) cut their child down by publicly criticizing the admissions decision or their child’s final choice of college after they have been admitted.  Many parents simply can’t hold their disappointment, which can be humiliating for their child.

No matter what happens at the conclusion of the college admissions process, you must find a way to make peace with the results. Many students feel as if they have let their parents down if they don’t get admitted to a specific school, and they carry that guilt for years. Remember that the main point is not for your child to get into to X, Y, Z college, but to pass through the hardest initiation of their life.

Take your child out when the letters come in and celebrate their bravery, their ability to tolerate the anxiety of not knowing the results for months, their uniqueness.  Now is the time to tell them how proud you are of them.  Find things you admire about them and speak that freely.  For example, you could tell him what an excellent friend he is and how you wish you were as good a friend to yours as he is to his, or tell her how much you admire her organization and stamina and how you want to be more like her that way.  Speak what is authentic and true.  If you cannot talk this way, write your child a letter and ask them to read it after you celebrate the decisions.  Do your best to focus on the successful completion of their firewalk, their initiation.  It’s not about the college that admitted them…it’s about how your child went about the process.  Be proud of them no matter what.

Less Stress, More Success

"Her book has added to her reputation as a kind of guru of the movement to tame the college admissions frenzy.”
New York Times
Our book group just read your book and it sparked more conversation than we’ve had in the seven years we’ve been reading together. Being successful professionals with busy lives and even busier children, we’re all trying to figure out how to find the time to just stop and enjoy our lives amidst so much pressure. Some of us find ourselves quoting you to our husbands and kids now, so you are our hero. ;-)
Sophia N. and Nancy R.

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