This time of year can be hell for parents of high school juniors and seniors. There are reams of glossy viewbooks crowding the mailbox, test prep classes, a slew of extracurricular activities and campus visits -- not to mention the dreaded applications. (A reminder: Most early-decision apps are due November 15.)
The college application process has become a potent source of upper-middle-class
parental anxiety. Parents and prospective collegians these days are even competing to send the most memorable
"It really is a Herculean task -- it can be like paying your taxes all over again, only much worse," says Arlene Matthews, a New Jersey college counselor and the author of Getting in Without Freaking Out: The Official College Admissions Guide for Overwhelmed Parents.
It doesn't have to be that bad. Believe it or not, the college application process might even be fun if you take time to appreciate the good parts.
Road Trip Together
Visiting a college can be surprisingly enjoyable and a bonding experience with your child, especially early in the process. Share an eye roll as yet another tour guide chirps about how great the food is in the dining hall, or compete with your kid to see who can tally the most college clichés (ivy-covered walls, students playing Frisbee on the quad, dorm-room Pink Floyd posters).
Sometimes, the worst visits -- the ones in which your beloved offspring decides within three minutes of setting foot on campus that there is
she's going to a school where so many students wear Birkenstocks -- can turn out to be the most fun.
Judy Budz, a partner at Massachusetts-based College Crunch Consulting, fondly remembers a trip to Miami University in Ohio that was an absolute bust. "It was clear it wasn't going to be a good fit," she says. "So we just turned it into a mini-vacation and went to a movie. We had the motel room, so we treated it like a weekend off from the college craziness."
Get to Know Your Kid
Whether you're overseeing the applications yourself or, as is becoming increasingly popular,
outsouring the process to a professional like Matthews or Budz, take advantage of the opportunity to get to know this interesting person who's been living in your house for the last 17 years.
You may get that chance as late in the process as the essay-writing stage, or as early as the first meeting with a prospective college counselor. Consultants often ask new clients a series of questions about academics, extracurriculars and what they want in a school.
"Sometimes parents don't even realize how much their children are doing, how much they've contributed to extracurriculars," says Budz. "Or the parent will find out that the student would love to be in Maine or upstate New York or the Midwest. You learn about your child that way, and it can be a very nice moment."
That knowledge can go both ways, especially if you're comfortable enough to share your own tales of undergrad follies. "We boomers had some wild times in college," says Arlene Matthews. "When parents start telling their kids things that happened, I've seen the kids' jaws hit the floor; they're so much straighter than we were, and they can't believe you're saying this."
Get Some Perspective
"The general admissions rate is 70% nationwide," says Matthews. "The reality is that most kids do get in to their first or second choice if they choose sensibly."
Adds Budz, "It's just like toilet training. When you're in it, you think it's going to last forever. But nobody's kid goes off to college still wearing diapers -- and everyone can go to college someplace."
Michaela Cavallaro writes about personal finance, business and food from her home in South Portland, Maine.