Too Cool for School (Applications)
How I convinced my inner helicopter parent to stay grounded during my son’s college search.
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By Dan Black
Few things in parenting life rival the sheer joy of that magical day when you send a child off to college. For so many parents, dreams of this ethereal moment begin long before their child’s first word is uttered or that tentative initial step is taken. The possibilities in those early days are broad and far-reaching, limited only by the imagination. Maybe she’ll be a doctor? Wouldn’t it be great to have an attorney in the family? Look at how curious he is … maybe he’ll be a scientist and win the Nobel Prize!
I remember in vivid detail the first time I held my son after he was born. To me, he was perfect, snuggled in my arms and looking up at me with those big bright eyes as if to say, “Hey Dad, nice to meet ya!” I soaked it all in for about 20 minutes, at which time a swarm of nurses whisked him away for tests and measurements and I was left alone with my thoughts. That’s when the dreaming — and planning — began for me. Such a beautiful creature must be destined for greatness; I better start saving for college. After all, as Yogi Berra once wisely said, “if you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”
Flash forward to today. In May, my little miracle will be graduating high school, and like so many parents before me, I have absolutely no idea where the time went. As he began the college exploration process last year, I was determined to help him be successful. After all, I’d been planning for this moment for nearly 17 years, and I had come up with some really solid ideas and strategies (at least by my own estimation). On top of that, I had another distinct advantage that I could leverage for his benefit: for over 15 years: I had served as the head of college recruiting for a large company. I had personally visited more than 100 college campuses and had made connections with deans and professors across the United States. I was eager to guide my son by suggesting majors, honors programs, admissions coaches ... whatever would help him realize his potential and follow his dreams.
Then one day it hit me. These weren’t his dreams, they were mine. And they were deeply entrenched in my history, my experiences, and the lens through which I viewed both my son’s life and my own. What’s worse is that I didn’t come to this realization on my own. I felt fully self-assured that wanting to insert myself into this process was not only a selfless gesture, it was a hallmark of good parenting. Luckily, I was ultimately guided by the wisdom of a resource from my own college days: my wife, who I’d met while attending Binghamton University. She reminded me that if our son was going to be successful, he needed to put in the hard work and truly own that success. She pointed out that feeling comfortable with your college choice is all about making that choice in the first place, not having it made for you. Last but not least, she emphasized that in less than a year our teenage son was going to be living on his own for the first time so it was high time that he started handling “the big stuff” without us holding his hand. And like the innumerable other times in our almost 30 years together, she was right.
So how can you execute this seemingly impossible balancing act of empowering your child through the process while still providing the support and guidance they need? It takes conscious, deliberate action on your part and a village of support around you, but it can be done. Here are a few strategies/approaches that we found were particularly helpful:
Lean in on technology. This generation is comprised of true digital natives who feel most comfortable when leveraging tech tools. Have them create and manage their own College Board account online. Encourage them to utilize their phone’s calendar and scheduling functions to track important deadlines and meetings. Point them to virtual college tour videos taken by drones that they can watch on YouTube. Once our son got over the shock of us encouraging him to be on his screens, he made good use of these tools.
Empower them to work with other resources. Does your school have a great counselor that your child likes? Work with them to establish a cadence so that the “nudging” isn’t always coming from you. Want to get a college coach? Make sure it’s someone that your child will respond to. In our case, we found a wonderful resource who was a graduate of our son’s high school and who was still in college herself. She possessed a wealth of recent, relevant information that she shared in a way that felt more like an experienced friend trying to help rather than a nagging adult. He began scheduling his own meetings with her and then debriefing my wife and me afterward. The end product was a college essay written in his voice and a big boost to his confidence in himself.
Give them space to form their own opinions. When we went on campus visits, it was all my wife and I could do to contain our excitement. To be back on campus with the beautiful buildings and bustling student life … we drank in the nostalgia until we’d had our fill and then we drank some more! But we made sure to let our son enjoy the experience without any additional narrative or perspective from us. With some initial prodding, he asked the questions, gauged the authenticity of the university representatives, and drew his own conclusions. When it came to our own alma mater, we made the wise choice of not even going with him on the visit. We asked our nephew if he would host him for the day, knowing full well that if we were there, we would almost certainly overshadow his walk down Campus Drive with our own trip down Memory Lane.
So, how did it all work out? At the time of writing our son had applied to nine universities, three of which are in his “top choice” category based on his own observation, research, and preferences. My wife and I couldn’t be happier; the list includes schools that we’d hoped he would apply to as well as some surprises that he found on his own. And all those dreams that I had about where he might go or what he might do? I realized that in reality there was only one true dream: that my son be happy. As I watched him hit the “send” button on his applications, the smile on his face was all I needed to see to know that we’d been successful in that regard.
Dan Black is the Global Recruiting Leader at Ernst & Young, overseeing the hiring of professionals at all levels for the organization’s offices worldwide. He is active in the Westchester community, serving as a volunteer firefighter in the Archville Fire Department and as a coach, referee, and active supporter of youth sports. He lives with his wife and two children in Sleepy Hollow.
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