In this week's 'Teen Talk' column—articles written by teens and young adults to help parents understand what's really happening in their world—a college student explains how to keep the college application process stress-free.

By Alexia Lewis
December 05, 2019
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Illustration by Emma Darvick

Want to stress-out a teenager? Mention college application deadlines. As they approach, teens will be more overwhelmed than they have ever been, and you, if you parent one, probably are too. Now put a stressed adolescent and a stressed parent under one roof and you have a recipe for miscommunication and friction in the family. New experiences and a fear of the future blanket the excitement of this experience. However, if we work together to sift through the tension we can all enjoy it together.

It can be hard to identify what exactly makes the experience so tense. But as a young adult who can evaluate this process in hindsight, the stressors are simple and it starts with this major one:

Teens are already under so much pressure.

I learned in school that diamonds are made under pressure, but trust me, there's more than enough pressure already on us today. As a generation brought up by helicopter parents, the pressure to pursue post-secondary education is reaching a fever pitch. And like most things teens deal with: applying to college is competitive. I'm now a sophomore in college, but I still remember the anxiety I felt when competing in the rigorous application processes and dealing with social media pressure to go to a notable school. Then there was the ultimate obstacle: making it "out." As much as a teen may love their home town, we have a big fear of being stuck there. The pressure each day piles on, so there is not a moment we are not thinking about our college applications.

Yes, we remember that looming deadline.

Even though your teen doesn't come home eager to work on their application essay, know they are thinking about it, constantly. When I was applying, teachers and practically every adult I encountered asked me what the next chapter of my life will look like. During this time I felt reduced to one decision, that truly was in someone else's hands. If I was on the admission board of my dream schools, I would have quickly accepted myself! But with the fate of my future in the hands of people I never met, I was always thinking about my applications. So if your teen puts off printing a form or editing an essay draft, don't assume they forgot or are lazy. They might just need a moment to push through their anxiety and catch their breath.

Help us feel less alone through the process.

At school, the application process felt very isolating—I always felt that I had to navigate my own dreams quietly. I was never eager to talk about my applications with my friends because I thought that if I told them that I wanted to go to a certain school and then didn't get in, I'd become the hot topic failure of the week. If your home isn't bustling with excited college application conversations, understand that there are likely feelings of fear and self-doubt building.

Please let my home be a space where the world's not on my shoulders. Let your conversations encourage us with optimism and reminders that no matter what, I will do great things with the rest of my life. Join me in escaping the pressure.

Love your dreams, but love my dreams more.

I know you've dreamed of what my future would look like. I know you want to help me avoid all of the mistakes you made. I know you are just trying to be the best parent. But I've dreamed (and had many nightmares) about my future too. My dreams are no less valid because of my lack of experience. The naivety of my hopes for the future allows me to be limitless. Don't diminish my fearlessness with the burdens of your years.

Just maybe, my belief that I can achieve anything, will be the very thing that allows me to.

Love that hope in your teen. Rather than put your teen's fire out, combine your fires by adding your hopes for them onto their hopes for themselves.

Guide me, but let me take the lead.

You know better than anyone that turning 18 doesn't instantly make me an adult, so give me a trial into adulthood during this application process. Let me choose the college tours we go on, let me learn how to do the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms with you, let me understand the seriousness of what I'm taking on by furthering my education. Don't just tell me, teach me. I wanted to enjoy making this big college decision with my parents at my side. Your teen does, too.

Through my college process, I realized I would either become closer with my parents or grow farther apart. And considering some students (like myself) choose a school that is literal states away from home, the threat of distance will already be physically there. It only heightens when this process is stressful, pressurized, and not their own. If you work together with your teen, you'll learn together. Sometimes you will need to lean in and other times you should lean out. But the bottom line is your teen needs you.

Knowing that college is looming may be scary for you as a parent, but it's good to remember that it's scary for your child too. The application process may be complicated and convoluted, but it's something your teen does need your help with, even if they give you a little attitude along the way.

A College Expert Weighs In

There's a thin line between being a guiding, caring parent and an overwhelming helicopter parent, and sometimes that line gets crossed, says Seth Bykofsky, the director of college counseling services at College Connection. "A parent's role during applications is to be there to offer advice, encouragement, empathy, and, as may be needed should those rejections roll in, solace," says Bykofsky. "Understand that while you may be the one who makes those hefty tuition payments, your student must take the ownership of those college applications and of the four or more years of college that follow."

His biggest piece of advice for parents dealing with stressed-out teens applying to college: "Love them unconditionally."

Alexia Lewis is a 21-year-old student at Hampton University majoring in Political Science. Alexia is a passionate change-maker and hopes to continue to fight for the greater good as a socio-political global game-changer. Through writing, speaking, and hard work, she’s determined to make a difference. 

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