Getting Your High School Child to Prepare For College

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At first glance, an article about preparing for college might seem like an odd choice to write for a mom of kids under the age of eight. However, before staying home with an army of tiny humans, I spent more than a decade as a high school teacher.

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Let me tell you: if there’s anyone with a front row seat to the train-wreck-rat-race that is getting ready for college, it’s a high school teacher.

Secondary school teachers, administrators, and counselors witness a new crop of students and parents successfully (and unsuccessfully) prepare for the college transition each year. 

The college application process has become increasingly competitive over the past decade. It’s to the point that even parents of elementary school students are stressing out about their children’s college admission chances (I really wish I were joking).

By the time students get to high school, college preparation panic has basically reached a fever pitch. 

So how can parents help their children prepare for college without going full-scale crazy? Where is the appropriate middle ground? Check out this college preparation checklist to help you approach the process with a balance of seriousness and sanity.

Most importantly, find out first: Does your child even want to go to college?

I get it — most parents dream of sending their child to college. Parents dress their tiny, old-man-looking newborns in their alma mater onesies and dream about the day their kids will matriculate.

Year later, they look at their teens and envision a successful four years of undergrad followed by graduate school or a thrilling and fulfilling career. However, while you may be fantasizing about your child becoming The Honorable Dr. Smith Esquire, MD, phD, this may not be what they see for themselves. 

There are other paths to a successful adult life besides college.

Trade school, work experience, military service — these are all viable options for young adults and should be treated as such.

Nothing sets a child up for an unsuccessful college experience like parents pressuring them to go there. If the only force driving your child to a university is the sheer will of mom and dad, that’s a recipe for failure.

Encourage your child to explore all their options for life after high school.

Preparing for college means fostering independence at home

Now, assuming your child does want to go, preparing for college is a lengthy process that happens over years (not weeks or months). A high school teen doesn’t just transform into a successful college student upon graduation.

Parents need to work toward this goal incrementally. Learning when to push and when to let go is one of the most difficult things about parenting teens. Nevertheless, it’s so important to foster their independence.

Preparing your child for college and equipping them with the necessary independence skills will look different for different kids.

While it’s not a bad idea to consider input from family, friends, and school personnel, you know your child best. Your neighbor’s approach may work for them and their teen, but that doesn’t mean it’s what’s best for your child. 

Look for opportunities to promote responsibility and living skills.

Make sure your teen manages their own classwork and deadlines. As a parent, you may be the Queen of Schedules or the Master of Organization, but if your child can’t tell their proverbial ass from their elbow in this department, they’re in for a rude awakening at college. 

Ensure your teen arranges their own transportation to and from activities.

You may still have to drive them, but they should be responsible for planning ahead to ensure they get where they need to go. Calling you ten minutes before they need to be picked up doesn’t count.

Assign them household chores and duties that will serve them well once they leave for college. Cooking meals and cleaning up their own crap are great places to start. *Bonus: these also lighten your labor load.  

Make sure college applications are your child’s responsibility

Your child’s college applications are just that — your child’s. I’m not saying a parent shouldn’t remind their child of deadlines or offer advice periodically. Teens certainly have a lot on their plate and they’re not grown yet.

However, there’s a clear difference between a parent playing a supportive role in the college preparation and application process and a parent completely taking over that process. 

The former is a helpful and appropriate role for a parent; the latter is a surefire way to sabotage your child’s college success before it even starts.

If you don’t want to be that parental freak show who calls professors at home to talk about their adult child (yes, this really happens), start letting go in this department now.

Just a few things in this process your child should be solely responsible for include:

  • Deciding what standardized tests they need and when to take them (SAT, ACT, etc.); registering for those tests
  • Ascertaining application deadlines and meeting them
  • Securing letters of recommendation and submitting them (and writing thank-you notes to those teachers, coaches, etc. who provided them)
  • Arranging for all necessary application fees to be paid (whether they’re responsible for providing the actual funds is up to you)
  • Ensuring that transcript requests are submitted to the high school’s student services department far in advance of the deadline

If your child is unable or unwilling to take responsibility for the application process, you may want to consider how well they will handle taking complete responsibility for college itself (before you shell out thousands of dollars).

Plus, if your child isn’t the engine driving the college application process, you may want to revisit section one of this article and re-examine whether they actually want to go to college.

Have your child do the legwork when it comes to preparing for college life.

Assuming your child wants to go to college, successfully navigates the application process, and gets accepted, it’s time to prepare for college itself. Once again, make this your child’s responsibility. 

What acceptance and enrollment paperwork does the college require? Make sure your child is the one completing and submitting them.

Do they need a physical? Have them make the appointment.

Are all the student loans, scholarships, or checks filled out and submitted? This is an area that may require your involvement (your teen shouldn’t be responsible for securing your tax information, for example).

Still, ensure that your child takes as active a role as possible. 

What items does your child need for their first semester?

Most colleges provide a suggested packing list, and Pinterest is full of suggestions for making the best of dorm life. While you may be willing and able to fund all or part of this process (or maybe not), have your child do the leg work.

The independence of college life is an adjustment for both child and parent, so this will be a good warming-up process for you both.

Finally, don’t treat high school as college prep

Yes, high school is a critical step in preparing students for college. However, there is value in the high school experience itself. Teens shouldn’t get completely caught up in the rat race of constantly preparing for the next thing.

High schoolers should be allowed to enjoy this stage, taking part in clubs, sports, and other activities without the focus being, “How will this look on my college application?”

In the same vein, parents should allow and encourage students to seek balance in their schedules. Just because your child can play on multiple soccer teams simultaneously doesn’t mean she should.

Just because your child can take a full load of AP courses, doesn’t mean he should. There is more to high school than college prep. Students should be allowed to tailor their experiences to their unique talents, desires, and needs. 

Getting ready for college can be a very stressful time for both students and parents.

The launching years are full of change and require substantial preparation. Following these tips (plus an occasional Oreo and Merlot binge) can help you keep perspective and make the most of this transition.

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