Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Getting into College: Then What?

“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.”  – Sir Winston Churchill.

lightthrufingersAs a college admissions consultant, I am well acquainted with the stress that families experience focused on that pivotal point in a young person’s life when the “fat envelope” signals acceptance to college. I joyfully share their excitement and collective sigh of relief, as a significant milestone is reached and that particular struggle is in the rearview mirror. However, I know that this milestone is only one of many in a young adult’s higher education and career journey. As I have mentioned in High School Seniors: Looking Toward College, the challenge of succeeding in life has just begun.

Getting into college–then what?  Your college student has to succeed. Most of that success will be up to your young adult. Is there anything that you can do now, besides pray and hope that your son or daughter has internalized the values you have taught at home? Without helicoptering or micromanaging, there are some actions you can take, depending on your student’s situation.

1. Independent, high achieving students. You may believe that your straight-A high school superstar will sail through college without complications. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true.

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Grade inflation in American high schools may give a student a complacently high opinion of his or her academic capabilities. Although grade inflation is a rising trend in most American higher education institutions as well, public universities tend to be tougher graders than private colleges. Duke Professor Stuart Rojstaczer has identified a “sweet sixteen” of tough grading universities, a mix of schools including MIT, Boston University, Harvey Mudd, Rensselaer, Purdue, and the University of Houston. If your freshman happens to be attending a tougher grading university, he or she may encounter a “rude awakening,” especially if pursuing a challenging field of study with “weed-out” classes (e.g., engineering, pre-med biology).

africanamericancomputerIn addition, high achievers who hold themselves to a rigorous personal standard could experience overwhelming, self-imposed pressure in college. Perhaps the student chooses a demanding credentialing path, such as a double major or a heavy semester course load, without parental guidance or a mature frontal lobe to help set realistic goals and edit back excessive activities. Or–your student may be an exceptional academic achiever but may encounter social, emotional, medical, or mental health issues in college. The social atmosphere at college, with the toxic omnipresence of drugs, alcohol, and lack of boundaries in the realm of sexual behavior, may overwhelm a serious student who has been somewhat sheltered in high school. Psychological conditions, such as panic/anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, are common among young adults experiencing being away from home in a high-pressure environment, and they can become life-threatening if ignored. Being a strong student does not inoculate against mental health problems!

You probably know your son or daughter best. While respecting your young adult’s right to make independent decisions, you can still occasionally plant subtle seeds about not taking on too much. As a parent, you can still exercise your unique role of asking about eating, sleeping, and taking care of one’s health, if you can do so with a little finesse (who else will ask?). You can diplomatically suggest sorting out a problem by going to an academic advisor, resident advisor, student health, or student counseling services. Most important of all, you can always listen.

tutorwithboy2. Students with special learning needs or underdeveloped academic independence. If your son or daughter has pronounced learning needs, you have probably already chosen a school with a structured program to address such needs, or a small, nurturing college such as a Loren Pope school. In addition to choosing an appropriate institution, it is advisable for you to be highly involved with your student’s choice of structured programs. Parents of college students without special learning needs may have standards for their young adults’ self-advocacy and independence that simply do not apply to your young adult, at least not during freshman year. I would suggest that you politely disregard their well-intended, but misguided advice. The goal is for your kid to succeed in college.

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If your son or daughter did not exhibit much academic independence in high school, expect that he or she will continue to be challenged by this issue in college. Although your young adult will continue to mature, of course, in college there will be new obstacles, such as the transition to living away from home, making new friends, doing one’s laundry, eating right, and dealing with social peer pressure. There is no “one size fits all” solution, because every student is a unique individual, and adjustment is a gradual process. You may want to set up frequent “check-ins” with this kind of student to make sure he or she is on top of her work, or encourage your student to work with a tutor within the college community on a weekly basis. And encouraging adequate self-care is essential for every student, no matter what level of academic independence he or she has achieved.

laundryguitar3. Students with an immature balance between social interests and academic motivation. I wrote extensively about this kind of student in my post, Freshman Year of College: Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire. This student has much growing up to do, and will still need boundary-setting by parents so that he or she does not do permanent damage to one’s academic career before maturity kicks in. I recommended three approaches to prepare for freshman year that apply to this kind of student (as well as most college kids to some degree):

  • Educate yourself. Try to relinquish any naīve, outdated, sentimental notions about college life so that you are not shocked by the experiences of college students. Read the typical books for parents of college freshmen, such as Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years by H. Johnson, but also educate yourself about the dangers of risky behaviors on campuses today, such as the YouTube video: College Freshmen and Substance Abuse.
  • Create firm, consistent boundaries at home, and encourage your teen to internalize those boundaries. Whether it be academic standards or behavioral house rules, it is important to communicate clear expectations and continue to model your family’s values whenever your student is at home. College administrators play no in loco parentis role as they once did, so students need to have internal standards to guide them.
  • Convey expectations for academic performance, and create a checkpoint structure appropriate for your freshman’s level of maturity. Utilize a tight rein first semester, with frequent checking on class attendance, progress on papers, and exam grades. It is easier to loosen up later if he or she earns your trust, rather than to tighten up after there’s a poor GPA on record. Since you are paying your student’s college bills in one way or another, you have every right to expect strong efforts toward solid academic performance. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) requires that college academic information can be given only to the student, not the parents; depending on your son or daughter’s specific situation, however, you may want to have the conversation of whether it is a good idea for your freshman to waive FERPA.

Getting into college was yesterday’s goal. Recognize that the goal is now for your young adult to succeed in college, on all levels.