After watching my two kids and their friends go through the college process and living in a community that highly values education, I recognized that the college search and application process, while complicated, does not have to be overwhelming. Instead, with the right framework and guidance, students can easily have a college journey that supports their success with less stress. For parents, the college search process can feel like the culmination of parenting -- their child's final launch into adulthood. Nonetheless, even the savviest parents who recognize that the college years will be filled with growth and change in their kids can be pulled into the anxiety of "getting into" college.
It reminded me of when my oldest was just about 18 months old, still scooting and crawling across the floor as a mode of getting from one room to another. No sign of the feet touching the floor, no noticeable interest in cruising around tables. Breaking out the "What to Expect" book to search for developmental milestones, I quickly found the note that said, "If your child isn't walking by 18 months, go see your pediatrician." I immediately was thrown into a state of a thousand questions and worry. Not surprisingly, what came to pass and almost immediately after I scheduled an appointment with the doctor was my oldest taking those first, perfect, steps. It was clear that my oldest had translated eighteen months of observing how others walked into his own seamless first steps.
Conversely, my youngest began walking at nine months, propelled by a desire to catch up with everyone, and wore road rash and bumps as proudly as they embraced their tenuous mobility. In our hearts, we know each of our children is different, unique, delightful, with their own sense of pacing. We're aware that they will develop on their own timeline and yet as parents knowing we are not the initiators of the actual steps can make that part of parenting at arms' length and observation tortuous.
The milestones of graduating from high school, and going to college or choosing a different path, are no different from a child's first steps: they are often internally driven and involve developmental readiness. Just like trying to determine which pre-school would be the best fit, finding colleges that will be the best fits are part of the dreaming and searching. Dreaming in the college search is about broadening your scope to see the variety of colleges, programs, locations, and opportunities available as students begin their search. The crucial difference from when your child was two or three is that your child is now ready to decide for themselves. Just as parents turn to "What to Expect" books when their children are younger, getting up to speed on what has shifted in college admissions is another way parents can learn “what to expect now”, and see what's changed since they applied to college.
Most students don't have a prior history of applying to college. It's all new stuff. What they often carry with them are years of familiarity with colleges that either members of their family attended, cheered for, or held as a totem of the best school. While these can be schools for students to begin to explore when starting their college search, it is essential to not fold the familiar into the idea of a "dream school." The mythical "dream school" -- that one perfect, match-made-in-heaven school -- still circulates. However, it is no longer the sole, relevant factor in having a successful college search. I get it. It's hard to move away from an idea that may have percolated for 12 years, from the first alma mater t-shirt, or basketball game. My oldest was two weeks old snuggled in a baby Bjorn watching their first blue and gold game. Not quite the start of building a college dream school, but easy enough to be lured into the wish or wonder of it. After spending years walking across a campus quad to cheer the home team, it's all so familiar, so neighborly, and it would be hard for a student to stop themselves from thinking, "This is my campus." By moving away from the presumption that there is one singular school for a student, families can help steer their teen towards a path of opportunity, and encourage broadening their lens when looking at all the possible colleges available to them.
Focusing on a student's pacing and college readiness is no different from when they were learning to walk, and the wonderful and empowering quality they now possess is the emerging ability to express what they want and direct themselves as to where they want to go. Dreams allow for a more expansive way of thinking about what a student wants for their college experience, even if that means they aren't quite sure of what they want to major in, or have everything precisely lined up. For some students, finding colleges that support exploration before declaring a major will be important. Not all graduating high school students know what they want to be when they grow up. Anchoring dreams in research and information will help establish expectations for both students and families, whether they are about college costs, distance from home, curriculum structure, majors, or any other critical priority a student wants. Taking the time to search broadly, coupled with analysis and reflection on one's abilities and aspirations, allows for a stronger match between student and school, and helps to define the equation for dream. search. apply.
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