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College Selection Stress Builds as May 1st Approaches – Advice from Dublin Parents

April 14, 2013

College stress. I’m not talking about finals, scrambling to finish a paper or midnight group project crunches. I’m talking about the college stress that burns through families during the senior year of high school. For many colleges May 1st is the deadline to accept an offer. I expected our high school senior to be stressed about which colleges to apply to, and the onerous application process, and the waiting for approval (or rejection) from faceless admissions officers. What I didn’t expect was the most stressful moment of all is the moment of decision. If you are a parent with a knot in your gut, unable to sleep, talking endlessly with colleagues at work about college-college-college, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone – you are normal.

Below are stories from the trenches, from Dublin High School parents just like you:

Arzu Brown

Aslan Brown

Aslan Brown

Arzu’s son Aslan is currently attending the University of California – Berkeley. Aslan shared his experiences as a freshman as part of the Life in College Series.

The application process is so overwhelming that we want to see results that would make all these efforts worth it… and then anxiety builds up , along with hope. Reality, however, is so much different.

If I were to explain the college selection process in a word, it would be “paradoxical”; because we, as parents, were subjectively trying to be objective. We knew we needed to be on the same page with our son, but it was really hard without bringing in our own experiences and paradigms. We want the world for our children.

In the end our decision for choosing the right school depended on how well we knew him and how well he knew himself. Additionally, like many parents, who neither qualify for financial aid nor can afford the high-priced private schools, we were torn between “want” and “reality”. Looking back now, I think we all made the right choice by finding the common ground between these two states of mind, as well as between us.

Kristen Finn

Kristen’s daughter Sarah is currently attending St. Mary’s College of California. Sarah shared her experiences as a freshman as part of the Life in College Series.

Sarah Finn

Sarah Finn

For us the selection process was fairly easy, Sarah has wanted to attend Saint Mary’s since her sophomore year at Dublin High School. There was a period of time where other schools were considerations for her, but with her choice of a double major her options were limited. Sarah received early acceptance in December 2011 from Saint Mary’s and when that letter came it was a done deal for her. We still received acceptance letters from the other schools she applied to and with each one we asked “Are you sure you still want Saint Mary’s?” and the answer was always “Yes!”

The tough part is really letting your child choose where they want to go to school, not where we think they should go. They have to live the experience not us, so the bottom line is what is best for them. This is truly their first of many life decisions they have to make for themselves and our first time not making that choice for them. So when our friends were stressing about their child’s decisions we could sit back and say, “She has made her decision and we are the luckiest parents ever, because our daughter is only 30 minutes away from home”.

That said, be prepared for that drop off day, the mix of emotions was incredible. You are happy and excited for them but scared to death and sad to leave them. Even with Sarah being 30 minutes away, the day we dropped her off was the hardest thing for me to do. I cried all the way home And the first couple of weeks it odd not having them in-house. But when you get those phone calls and emails about how much fun they are having and new friends they are making, the loving of all of their classes the sadness goes away. I am also shocked at how quickly this first year has gone, Sarah is too. It’s a roller coaster ride, but it’s quick and not so bad in the end.

Alan and Tamara Elias

Tamara and Alan’s son Tristan has committed to attend University of Colorado at Boulder (CU).

For our son Tristan and the family it was a very stressful journey. First, he came to the extremely difficult decision that he didn’t want to play football in college — despite being actively recruited by nearly 20 top academic colleges and universities. It was actually an amazingly mature decision especially an 18 year-old. Somewhere during his senior year he decided he wanted to become an orthopedic surgeon and didn’t think he could balance the rigors of college football with the academic performance required to get into medical school. With that decision made, he then did his research and decided upon his top 2-3 choices.

I think the waiting was the hardest part for Tristan (and us). Having so much uncertainty and what really is a complete lack of control over your future is nerve-wracking. As the timeframe for hearing from colleges with their acceptance decisions approaches, both student and parents are on edge. All that can be done has been done and your child’s future—for the next four years and beyond—is out of your hands. The element of powerlessness adds to the tension.

The first college communication we received was in late February in the form of an email inviting him to Admitted Student Day at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). Since we weren’t expecting any responses yet, and we hadn’t actually seen an acceptance from the college, we were somewhat confused. After accessing his CU email, we learned—in reverse order—that he had been accepted into the Honors Program as an Integrated Physiology Major. To say he was excited would be an understatement. I think that first acceptance validated that he had a future at hand and a major weight was taken off his shoulders. I remember him saying, “Wow, I’m really going to college.” Everyone was happy and emotional.

From the time we learned that Tristan had been accepted, CU regularly reached out by email and social media, making him (and us) feel like he was already part of the family. Meanwhile, although he had been accepted by multiple UCs, we heard… nothing. Finally packets of impersonal, “form letters” began to arrive. We felt like a number to the UC system, but “the Elias family” to CU.

When we visited the University of Colorado, Boulder, it was really for a chemistry check. It had become his #1 choice on paper, but would all of the positive aspects of the University’s academic programs match up with the campus setting including the personalities of fellow students?

The University did a masterful job during Admitted Student Day, and within the first few hours, Tristan knew that he wanted to become a “Buff”. His smile grew throughout the day and whatever tension was still left in his body seemed to evaporate and was replaced with pure excitement for his decision and his future. A short walk to the Admissions Office and Tristan committed on the spot. He knew this is where he wanted to spend the next four years of his life.

At the end of that day when Tristan sincerely and warmly thanked us for the opportunity to go to college, and he told us how much he loved us, we both knew that not only did we do a pretty good job of raising this “kid,” but that he was absolutely going to make the most of his next four years. What more could a parent ask?

Our advice to parents and students embarking on this process in the future:

  • Apply to as many colleges as you can afford. (Application fees add up.) It’s good to have options.
  • Throw in at least one dark horse. You don’t know how your situation may change from the time you apply to when decision time arrives. Don’t limit yourself. Our son applied to CU on the very last day possible after dragging his feet following writing multiple essays for the colleges in the UC system, which is where he thought he wanted to be. Imagine how different his future would be if he hadn’t pressed the send button on that last day.
  • Keep an open mind. Good or bad can be said about almost any college. What’s right for one, may be “wrong” for someone else.
  • Be flexible. Roll with the punches. Don’t get into your first choice? Shuffle and designate another college your “first choice”.
  • This one is easier said than done, but try not to doubt yourself when a rejection arrives. As amazing as you are—both on paper and in real life—there simply aren’t enough spaces available to admit everyone who is talented and qualified. This one is a tough pill to swallow but, it’s true.
  • Understand the method of communication the college will use to advise you of their decision. At the beginning, I expected an email to drop into his/our personal email box. In reality, you have to proactively visit the student’s email address associated with the college to learn the decision. I’m not sure if this is the case with every college, but it certainly is with many.
  • Research multiple payment options. I’m not sure if you know this, but college is EXPENSIVE.
  • Bask in pride and amazement about this little person you’ve raised who is no longer little, but ready to go out and make his/her mark on the world.

Mary Lou Bullock

Mary Lou’s son Chandler is currently attending Syracuse University. Chandler wrote about his experience as a freshman as part of the Life in College Series.

Chandler Bullock

Chandler Bullock

Chandler had applied to a dozen schools but when he was faced with the task of making a final decision about which school to attend, it came down to a choice between two: Syracuse University or Boston University. He felt very torn for a while, and kept weighing the pros and cons of each, relative to which he felt would be a better overall fit. Stephen and I had our opinions, but we tried our best not to influence Chandler’s decision.

Ultimately his choice of Syracuse was the one we all favored; and now, nearing completion of his freshman year, it’s clear he made the “right” choice. Making that decision was pretty difficult for him, I think because, even though he had visited the campuses and researched the schools thoroughly, there is still a huge unknown factor that remains “unknown” until you’re actually on campus and matriculated. Along with a leap across the country, he had to take a leap of faith that his intuition about the school he chose was solid, which can be especially difficult for a young adult, understanding that the school selected would influence the direction of the rest of their life.

Patricia Wilcox

Patricia’s daughter Paige is attending Chapman University and son Ian is attending Willamette University.

The first child was terrifying! The thrill was in how well prepared my child was for college. She had a dream school, and that’s where she went. The choice was made easy by the scholarship she received, and the tears she shed when she was accepted.

The second one was a matter of finding a personality fit. Visiting the school was an afterthought, since we had already made a deposit at another university. Walking on campus was like the sun came out, he belonged.

Chris Bennett

Chris’ son Nate is currently attending Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.

Senior year is a roller coaster of emotions and decisions for students and their parents. Looking back a year later, I think the most important – and challenging – thing parents can offer their seniors is perspective: they will go to college, you will readjust as a family, and it’s far more important what they do with their opportunities in the long run.

Michelle McDonald

Michelle’s daughter Annie is currently attending Santa Clara University. Annie wrote about her experience as a freshman as part of the Life in College Series.

Annie McDonald

Annie McDonald

We spent spring break week visiting all three schools that were left on my daughter’s list and I could see the conflict in her the entire week. Trying to make things “fit” at one place, the frustration of knowing another was not the right place. By the time we visited Santa Clara on the last day of the break, I started to see her relax and I had a very good feeling that she had made her decision. We got in the car and she said “Can we pay the deposit when we get home?” and it felt like we could both breathe for the first time in days. That was a great feeling.

Michele Haubert

Michele’s daughter Katelyn is currently attending Chapman University. Katelyn shared her experience as a freshman as part of the Life in College Series.

Katelyn Haubert

Katelyn Haubert

It was important for us to visit all the campuses so we could see where our daughter might go, but we tried hard not to give too much input or fall in love with a particular school because it was up to our daughter to make up her own mind. When it came down to the decision, she just really felt comfortable at Chapman. She could picture herself best as a student in a smaller environment where she could get really involved and get to know as many people as possible. It was also important that she be able to finish her degree(s) in four years. Of course location and weather were also a factor. She is very happy about her decision and has had a great 1st year!

James Morehead

James’ daughter Emily has committed to attend the University of British Columbia (UBC).

The college selection process for us began well before senior year, with college campus visits disguised as vacations. Emily had provided clear guidelines about what she wanted, and didn’t want, which really helped. With thousands of good colleges to choose from in North America, it is stressful just deciding where to apply.

Emily’s criteria: she wanted to major in political science and have access to a strong theatre program. She wanted a big school near a large city. She wanted to be on the west coast. With that in mind, during Emily’s junior year, we toured California colleges by car, and flew northwest over Thanksgiving. We even included Vancouver-area schools in the selection mix (as Canadian citizens, we are familiar with Canada’s outstanding university system). Emily attended a day-long “Degree in a Day” program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) over U.S. Thanksgiving, and because Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated in October, the campus was bustling with activity.

Visiting a campus while in session in invaluable. There was an intangible something as we toured the UBC campus, a sense of belonging and correctness, of comfort and excitement. I sensed Emily felt the same way.

We – and I say we because the college application and selection process invariably becomes a complex family negotiation – ultimately applied to nine schools – public and private, in-state and out-of-state (and out-of-country). The first acceptances, even though expected, assured Emily she was going to college. The UBC acceptance arrived early, and old school, in a large envelope whisked upstairs by Emily and opened behind closed doors. The first word in the letter from UBC was simply, “Yes!” With a set of acceptances (and inevitable rejections) in hand, every day that passed without a decision kept the entire family in a state of suspended animation.

I will remember exactly where I was when Emily said, “Dad, I’m ready to commit to UBC!” I’ll remember the wave of relief, the feeling of being released from a holding pattern of uncertainty, the ability to move forward.

In reflection, college selection stress is normal. Selecting a college is arguably the biggest decision a teenager has made to that point. It is the first decision that has impacts in terms of years, not days, weeks or months. That decision is a taste of the independence and freedom right around the corner, exhilarating and scary.

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  1. irene padnos permalink
    April 14, 2013 11:34 pm

    Great article. Thank you. I enjoyed it very much.

  2. Alan Elias permalink
    April 14, 2013 11:48 pm

    Very nicely written, James. Thanks for including us.

  3. April 16, 2013 12:58 pm

    Very informative article and great inputs! Thank you James for including us!

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