Applying for college is stressful. Here's how parents can help support their kids.

From essays to tuition fees, the admissions process is intense.

Essays, exams, financial aid paperwork ... applying for college is a lot of work. Here's how families can get through the process with less stress.
Essays, exams, financial aid paperwork ... applying for college is a lot of work. Here's how families can get through the process with less stress. (Image: Illustration by Victoria Ellis)

As a college adviser, Deena Maerowitz tells parents that going through the process of children applying and attending college is the biggest transition since birthing these said children.

“When you have your first child you have all this advice out there coming from everyone, and this is another huge transition, but you don’t have nearly as much advice out there,” Maerowitz tells Yahoo Life. “There are so many things that are stressful about this process. You have cranky parents, cranky teenagers. It’s a lot like a pregnancy because you’re uncomfortable at times, you’re happy at times, you can’t always find the right position. You’re kind of in limbo.”

Maerowitz is a lawyer, former assistant admissions director at Columbia University Business School and current adviser with the Bertram Group. Parents start reaching out to her when their children are as young as freshmen in high school.

This year, Maerowitz has extra interest in the process. Her own 18-year-old daughter is a high school senior. Despite her background and career, Maerowitz says the process is still stressful for her family.

“We made a decision to only talk about it once a week over Sunday dinner,” the Connecticut mom says. “That way it wasn’t constantly in our conversations and it wasn’t overtaking our lives because while this is an important decision, it’s just a part of our lives.”

Another way Maerowitz suggests diminishing stress is dividing up the tasks among family members. Maerowitz’s daughter researched what schools would be the best fit for her, Maerowitz used her expertise to help with applications and her husband took on the job of scheduling and booking college tours. It’s a way to involve the whole family without everything falling on one person. But along with sharing the tasks, it’s inevitable the family will share in the emotions of the process.

Tim Connon says disappointment was felt all around when his 18-year-old son did not get into two of the three colleges he applied to.

“I had to be strong for him and assure him that he will get accepted into one of the colleges he applies to,” Connon tells Yahoo Life. “As a parent you should always focus on being strong for your children in these situations. Do not let yourself become negative because your children look up to you, so if you are optimistic this will reflect on them.”

Connon, who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., says that although the admissions hurdle is behind them, there are still more challenges to overcome. The school his son will attend in the fall did not offer financial aid.

“The tuition is substantial and paying for it means sacrificing the vacation trips we take every year as a family,” says Connon, who works in the insurance industry.

According to a recent College Ave survey of parents of undergraduates conducted by Barnes & Noble College Insights, 71% were surprised by the cost of college.

Ann Martin, mom to an 18-year-old senior, says the single hardest part of the process has been filling out scholarship applications. Martin tells Yahoo Life that while it’s great there are hundreds of scholarship opportunities, the application process can feel endless.

“Even getting through a few of them a week is proving to be too much on top of all her other homework and extracurriculars,” Martin says. “I’ve started to do some of it for her by identifying good scholarships to target and entering basic information into the forms for her, but I feel that it’s important that any application letters or essays have her voice, and that she take responsibility for her future.”

Her daughter has not decided on a school yet, but Martin is hoping for a low-cost university in their home state of California to keep costs down and so that her daughter starts her adult life debt-free.

“This process can be so stressful for parents because they have been thinking about this since they first applied to kindergarten,” says Felicia Garfield, a social worker with Soho Parenting.

Garfield tells Yahoo Life that the pressures of college can begin at an early age when parents inadvertently put pressure on their kids to not just perform well in school, but also add extracurricular activities to their schedule in the hopes of impressing colleges. By the time the college admission process rolls around, teens already feel the pressure from parents, teachers and college advisers.

“The culture that has gotten created is one in which anxiety runs rampant,” Garfield says. “Our children, on the other hand, are anxious because they don’t want to let us — their parents, grandparents, teachers and coaches — down. There is a lot riding on this and they feel it very deeply. Am I good enough to make the cut?”

Keeping the communication open during the process is important, whether that be helping your child understand why more than one school may be the right fit for them, setting realistic financial expectations or even considering a gap year before starting college.

“Parents can help their child navigate the college process with less stress and make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved,” Garfield says. “Ultimately the goal is not for the parent to guide their child toward a college or career, but a life in which they love learning, and are excited to discover their unique gifts that they can contribute to the world.”

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