Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Oktoberunrest: Completed the Application, But Won’t Hit Submit

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Did anyone else have a weird week? Just as I was getting used to managing the college counseling crisis du jour—anxiety over wealthy parents inventing odd ways to get their child into college, major changes in the way students are recruited by coltleges, and a testing giant doing a 180 on their long-standing policy about superscoring—the world of college counseling experienced no major changes last week, leaving me with no other choice but to—you know—do my job.

I have to admit, I was kind of at a loss. But then a parent called with a crisis, and I was right back in the saddle.

“I don’t get it” she said, “he’s written wonderful essays, gone over his activities list three times, and secured what I know are two great letters of recommendation (Note: I decided not to ask how Mom was so certain of this.) But every morning, I ask him if he submitted the application, and I get the same answer. ‘Nah. Tomorrow.’ What’s going on?”

Welcome to mid-October, the time of year when Homecoming, homework, and home expectations about life after high school turn even the strongest of seniors into quivering masses of uncertainty. Six weeks ago, they were ready to rule the school. Now, two Physics tests and word that some seniors have already been admitted to college have students wondering all kinds of things:

Am I really ready for high school to be over? This is when some seniors start to see this year as a series of lasts—last school picture, last big game against the crosstown rival, last fall dance. Mentally, they know there’s a lot to look forward to; emotionally, they wonder if it’s going be as good as it’s been. In this interesting scenario, high school starts to end the minute they apply to college. If you don’t hit submit, there’s still time to live out the good.

Could I have done more? For other students, this time of senior year isn’t about the end of the good times—it’s about wondering if the times could have been better. It isn’t uncommon for students to want higher grades or more awards when they see their accomplishments in writing-- Why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I study longer? That leads to a pretty natural next question—am I really ready to make the most out of college, if I didn’t make the most out of high school? If not, why apply?

What am I doing with my life? Still another version of Oktoberunrest lies with students who aren’t wondering in the least about what they’ve done, but start to doubt what lies ahead. Imposter syndrome runs rampant this time of year, and seniors who want to avoid being “called out” with a college rejection know there’s only one way you can’t possibly get outed; don’t apply.

It’s easy to understand why parents are flipping out about this dearth of college activity, especially if everyone was Just. So. Buzzed. about college a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, parent responses sometimes miss the larger point, and their well-meaning responses—“But you love this college”, and the highly dreaded “The longer you wait to apply, the harder it will be to get admitted”—can actually do more harm than good.

Our task is to get everyone back on the same page. Give the student floodtides of reassurance. Senior year will not end tomorrow, and if it does, there are class reunions; the good you’ve created may not be perfect, but it’s still good; that good will be part of you forever, and is something you can build on to make an even better life in college.

If that doesn’t work, there’s this. Hold up the nicest writing instrument you have in the office, and say “I have to sign a form as part of your college application that says I recommend you for admission. If I didn’t think you were ready, I wouldn’t sign it. But I’ve got my pen, right here.”

Mom and Dad come next. Tell them what happened when you met with the student— and make sure that meeting occurs without any parental presence—then give them the inside scoop. They may not understand right away (“He’s had such an easy life! Why does he see this as hard?”), but ask them if they ever had doubts about the big decisions in their lives. That makes it real.

Nothing earth shattering happened in the world of college admissions this week, but we still have a chance to make a world of difference in college admissions this week. Let’s help some folks move forward.

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