7 Things I Wish I Had Known When My Son Started Applying to College

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Many of us have heard that the process of finding and applying to college is difficult, for both the student and their family. I expected that.

We also know that there’s so much that is, indeed, predictable – your high school senior’s final year at home, navigating all the applications and forms (with the assistance of the webinars that teach you how to fill them out), negotiating finances, and all the emotion that comes with every little detail and decision. There are many different college admissions timelines and planning resources to help mark deadlines and requirements.

Despite all the resources and planning, however, we didn’t experience a linear process of school identification, application, and enrollment at even one of the schools my son applied to – does a simple application process even exist for families?

I had no idea what I was in for when my son started applying to college.

For everything I was prepared for, there was more I wish I had known that could have made life, and the college application process, a little more gentle for my son and my family.

1. Breathe – and buckle up for the long haul

At one point last fall, my son said to me, “Don’t worry. I’ll end up at *a* college.” He was joking, but that statement made me realize: There is a school out there for everyone, and likely, a number of schools. It may not be where you think, in fact as things tend to work out, it’s probably not where you think.

Breathe.

Applying to college is a multi-month (for us, ten months) process, and you will need air! The process is a roller coaster and a long roller coaster at that. Buckle up and find hope in the fact that riding those ups, and plummeting to those downs, will eventually lead to that special place – that ultimate decision. It’s not always comfortable or fun, but many have traveled this path before you.

2. Keep an open mind and let others help them with applying to college

Your child will glean information from a lot of random sources. Schools will fall off (and on) the prospect list like dominoes based on what their friend said, who they know who goes to that particular school, who won the league championship, and other reasons that are impossible to discern. Let it happen because you can rest assured that your child is receiving counseling and reviewing resources at school. Vermont schools plug students into databases such as Scoir and Niche to help zero in on some of the more important issues like major, location, and cost.

Students sit at a table in front of stacks of books.

3. Visit and engage

It is really useful to visit prospective schools to get a better idea of what they’re really like.

Go early in the process (and before New England winters and their challenging roadways take hold!). If there’s even a remote chance that your child may apply to the school, they should engage with the school as soon as possible. Online resources are great but campus tours gave us invaluable information, not only about the school but about what it would be like to be a student there. After your child learns more about the school, asks questions in person, walks through the buildings, and talks with current students, they will be closer to “just knowing” (and really, feeling) if it’s the place for them. After each visit, we came away feeling more decisive. The sooner you can complete this step, the better, especially for athletes who will work in tandem with college coaches.

A boy stands in front of a university welcome sign.
On one of our many college visits.

(Admissions offices also keep track of who visited, took a tour, had an interview, attended an event, and even who follows them on social. If you’re truly interested, show it. It matters.)

4. Keep track of all logins and sites

When I applied to college, school “lookbooks” came in the mail, applications were printed on paper, and I pecked out my essays on a light blue Toshiba typewriter (complete with eraser tape). A few extra stamps to post the envelope and bam, it was done.

Now, of course, everything is online, from the Common App, a single form used by nearly 1000 colleges and universities, to the FAFSA and CSS financial aid forms which tap directly into the IRS database – really!

Don’t be fooled. Applying to college online may sound simple but admissions and financial services departments request additional information over time, and it’s impossible to complete anything in one sitting. Save your login info, even if you are completely sure you will never come back to that particular site.

5. Organize and be responsive when applying to college

The college application process is dynamic, with many steps over more than a year. The Common App helps streamline the application process and organize general profile information (as do the FAFSA and CSS, from a financial perspective).

But the Common App is only a start. Not only are there other “common” apps like Coalition or Questbridge that are more specialized, most of the colleges my son applied to asked for supplemental information, which can be quite extensive. Sometimes schools couch additional questions as optional – but let’s be honest, why wouldn’t a student want to further differentiate themselves?

From extra essays to reflections, to explanations of life decisions, and my personal favorite, Colgate University’s ten writing prompts to answer in no more than 13 words each – there is always more to do. The best way to keep the process from spinning out of control, or dropping balls, is to:

          • Join your student in writing down and keeping track of deadlines
          • Keep lists, and act immediately on new deadlines. And just when you think you’re done, more will come up, especially if your child is waitlisted.
          • Keep checking each college’s portal, because new information is posted throughout the application process.
          • And, if your child needs extra support (and most do) make sure you set up regular times to meet and review accomplishments, benchmarks, and next steps.

6. Help your child find their (Vermont!) difference and express it

Any information your child can provide to set themselves apart from the crowd is good information. This is not new advice, but I think we have a special opportunity here in Vermont. Our teens have access to the quirky as well as the quintessential; they have the opportunity to make authentic connections. “Growing Up Vermont” is special. Chances are that simply living in Vermont has presented your child with opportunities that set them apart, whether it is through recreation, volunteer work, community development, or more. This is pure gold, particularly if they are applying to schools that attract students from across the country and even the world.

Encourage your teen to stand out as a Vermonter: they deserve it!

7. It’s not over till it’s over (our story)

For two months, my son was going to be a freshman at one of the hottest colleges in Boston, where he was accepted early action (an early, but non-binding, decision from the school). This school has a special program where he would launch his education with a year in London. We paid the deposit; we went to parents’ weekend, and we took pictures in all the right places. He got into other schools, was recruited to play soccer, and was offered significant merit aid at other schools, but still, his focus did not waver.

On one of the first days of spring, I dragged him to Middlebury College for an admitted students’ tour – only because he got in, it was so close, and I felt like taking a road trip. He wasn’t particularly interested but the earth was warming, the sun was out, and it was a great day for a drive. Middlebury is a world-class school;  why not see what they have to offer?

Sure enough, after the tour, the wheels started turning in his head. Two nights later, he got up from the couch, came over to me at the kitchen counter, and said, “I think I’m going to Middlebury.” I cried, collapsed into the kitchen counter, and full-on bawled. With that decision, he went from leaving for a year in London (yes, exciting, and how very far away!) to planning his next four years 40 minutes down the road. My traveling, worldwise international kid; my Vermonter.

It’s not over till it’s over, friends. And miracles do actually happen – right until the very last moment.

A young man stands in front of the sign to Middlebury College.
Our choice (at last).

There is a lesson here about letting your child make his own choices and holding your tongue, including while they are applying to college. There is a lesson about intervening only when something is particularly critical. In the end, my son would only open himself to differing possibilities after I let go of my own agenda. My sister has said,

How can they give up their fight if you won’t give up yours?

Sometimes throwing it out to the universe and letting go is the best one can do as a parent. Keeping my thoughts to myself over these months was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

A mom and tween boy smile from the top of a mountain in summer.
Hiking mountains; taking on challenges together. My son and I, just five years ago.

There were so many things that I wish I had known a year ago when my son was just entering his senior year in high school. This process could have been easier. Start early and review often  – college drop-off will happen sooner than you think.

How are you trying to make life easier while helping your child apply to college during this critical senior year?

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Originally from Connecticut, Vicky lived on a farm in Cabot for 22 years before recently moving to South Burlington seeking greater opportunity in high school education. She is a mom to a teen boy and girl, and a Goldendoodle who grew up to look more like a poodle. A reticent soccer mom and former lawyer who owns her own marketing and communications business, she spends most of her work time playing with words. She mourns the demise of the serial comma. Don’t ask her if she passed the bar exam (she did) and why she doesn’t have her own website if she writes them for others (she’s been working on her own site for about six years). She’s outside every day, and you may find her sitting in the sun in January, wrapped in blankets. Swinger of birches and lover of all things Vermont, she hikes, paddles, cooks gluten-free and vegan food, reads meaningless novels, and is a recent Pilates convert. She loves to visit her happy place any time of year in Ogunquit, Maine.

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