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The Balancing Act: Parents in the College Process

Abby Adams
Mission Principles: Pursuit of the Balance of Rigor & Joy, Dedication to "Best Fit" College Search
Alumni parent and Communications Manager Abby Adams reflects on the parent experience during the college search process.

It’s your child’s senior year and your mail is full of college postcards and brochures. You’ve visited a college or two with your son or daughter, they seem to have put together a list of potential colleges to apply to, and they profess to be “working on it” when you ask about starting applications. Things seem to be progressing at a decent pace and you feel pretty good. Almost relaxed. Balanced. You decide to trust your and your child’s approach and, for the time being, save your family’s college conversations for weekly, Sunday afternoon check-ins.
And then it happens.
You are in the school parking lot waiting to watch a game and another 12th-grade parent approaches you. After a minute of small talk, the questions start. Where is your child applying? Have they finished their essays? You really decided not to have your child take test prep? Mixed in, they share that their child, who did take test prep over the summer, is taking the ACT one more time to perfect their score while working ahead on their next batch of applications (the first batch have already met the earliest possible deadlines). This parent is well-meaning; you have known and liked them well enough for years. But, as the conversation continues, your blood pressure soars and your confidence in your child’s ability to handle the college process starts to wither. Suddenly, vertigo upsets your nice, balanced picture.
Our Director of College Guidance, Rachel Petrella, has heard these stories by the hundreds and can sympathize with the situation. The questions and comments in the conversations may differ, but the essence is the same. As a parent who has admittedly been on both sides of the exchange, I know how it can make the job of being a parent in the college admissions process far more stressful than it needs to be. We start to question our own decisions, how we relate to our kids through the process and even worry whether our child can get admitted to a college at which they will thrive. Those who initiate the conversations are simply letting their own free-floating anxiety run amok. It happens.
It is natural for parents to feel anxiety about this important transition in their child’s life and there is far more to it than just the process of applying to college. Our hopes and dreams for our children’s opportunities and happiness blur together with reflections on what we perceive as our parenting successes and mistakes. Underlying all of it is uncertainty about what this change will mean for our relationship with the children we love so much and who, not too long ago, relied on us for everything.
Today’s college process is complex, intimidating, and far different from when, years ago, we took a standardized test or two, wrote a few essays and applied to a couple of schools. The landscape in college admissions has become increasingly competitive, meaning that students apply to far more schools, often with a wide array of application and testing requirements. For parents, successfully navigating the maze of financial aid forms seems to require a degree in accounting. And, a robust industry of test prep and college application specialists tell us that their products will make all the difference. No wonder our confidence sometimes wobbles!
A good way to combat this anxiety is with information. As Pacific Ridge parents, we can take advantage of all that our College Guidance Office has to offer – and it offers a lot. Formal programming starts in 9th grade and builds yearly in frequency and depth. By senior year, the counselors know our students well; they have crafted an individualized process that supplies students with all they need to research, select and apply to great colleges that meet their requirements. College Guidance’s philosophy puts the student at the lead of the process, helping them grow in self-knowledge and confidence as they ready themselves for this next phase of life.
College Guidance also provides support for parents through regular information sessions, senior parent coffees and being available for appointments any time you need to ask questions, discuss how best to support your child, or just talk through your own anxiety. Having a three-person College Guidance staff serving a class of 96 students and their families is a tremendous benefit we enjoy as part of the Pacific Ridge community. Our counselors have knowledge, experience and the time to focus on each student’s individual journey.
So, my advice to upper school parents for staying balanced is to inform yourself at each stage of the process so you can believe in your child and support their unique college path.
And, when you get to senior year, consider putting the College Guidance Office on speed dial.

Abby Adams