Skip to Content

What We Do to Get Our Kids Into College

Disclaimer:  This post is going to be about how much we help our kids get into college. We did it, you did it, and according to the book of Good Parenting, which is also known as What Everyone Else Does, it is what we should do. This is not a post that thinks there’s anything wrong with “helping”, even though it is about what can happen when we don’t.

Once I had a psychology teacher who said to the class, “When you get that feeling in your stomach that you’re being manipulated, you are.”

college applications, getting into college, SAT changes, financial aid counseling, how parents help kids get into college, midlife, midlife women

I have been reading about the changes in the SAT.  Among other things, the writing requirement will be removed, the subject matter will be updated to align with contemporary culture and curriculum, and kids previously unable to avail themselves of expensive SAT prep will find it online for free so that nobody is left standing behind the rope.

It means a lot of kids will get into college who might not have before.

I’m getting that feeling in my stomach.

It’s not for us, because Sam graduated high school two years ago; it’s more of a sympathy tummy ache for those who believe that  the easier getting in part has anything to do with the staying in and getting out parts, which have everything to do with initiative, drive, maturity, intelligence and of course, a compelling desire to run their own lives. Things for which there is no standardized test.

Most of us who have raised our children with the expectation that they WILL go to college gear up to “help” in the junior year and are full-on “helpful” in the senior year, when every conversation between parents and their seniors starts with “Did you”, or, “Don’t forget”.

Our own refrigerator door was so full of (cheerful! Always cheerful!) post-it reminders, it annoyed even me. It did not annoy Sam because he went to the refrigerator for little pizza snacks, and cherry Coke, not information.

Here would not be a bad time to cultivate that initiative (or at least glimpse it) but this is when many of us move from full-on helpful to “I’ll just do it.” We schedule the SAT, pay for the prep, hire the tutors and suggest essay topics. We leave the Barron’s guide where they’ll trip over it, and have many, many meetings in the living room to “narrow things down”. We read up and panic ourselves about the “difficulty today of getting in” (And by the way, there has never been a “today” when it wasn’t difficult for one reason or another) and we cheerfully, always cheerfully, urge our students to bring their grades up when they get a chance. We send them to take the SAT every quarter. We book flights and tours. We send them  links.

Why do we? Two reasons, in my opinion:

First, because the thought of leaving life-altering, critical priorities and deadlines in the hands of people who start big projects eight or nine hours before they are due, is terrifying.

Second, because everyone else does it.What if we didn’t?

What if the helpful-parent culture suggested that getting into college belongs to our kids as much as staying in college does? What then, would we see of readiness?

A parent once said to me about her exasperatingly mellow junior, “I told her, ‘This is in your hands. You don’t research where you want to go? You’re not going.'”

What if we meant it?

Think for a moment, if we parents stopped the college-prep bus, moved over and asked the kid to drive, how far they’d get. What if you left the entire project in their hands? Made them buy their own Barron’s guide, organize their tours, pay for their apps and their own SAT prep? What if we ceased the nagging, and said, like the friendly neighbor over the fence, “How are you doing with the whole college thing? Good?”

Can you imagine? I can.

I met that kid.

She is one of the teens at our local Boys and Girls Club who is competing for “Youth of the Year”, the Club’s scholarship program. There is a $500 scholarship for participating, another $500 if they win, and at the state level, a $10,000 scholarship to the college of their choice.

When I began working with her on her essays and speeches, she was a junior who had  “never really thought about college” because nobody in her family had ever gone. Family expectations of her amounted to graduating high school, finding a job and moving out. She was self-conscious when she talked about her college plans with me as if she were not convinced by her own words on the subject.I wondered how her ambition would be sustained with no money, no role model, no support from home. No refrigerator door with post-its..

“I only know I’m going,” she said.

At school, she took on an ambitious course load, including a sprinkling of AP classes, the strain of which, on top of managing a household in the dawn-to-dark absence of her parents, reduced her to tears more than once.

Still, she pulled her GPA from the low threes to a 3.8, and took a job bagging groceries twenty hours a week to pay for the SATs and college applications. The first SAT “really, really sucked” she said,  but scores from the second one were much better because “she knew what to expect.”

There’s your free SAT prep.

She applied to six schools, five where her major is offered and a “safety”. As of this month, she has been accepted into all but one.

She has no idea how she’ll pay for it. Her guidance counselor responded by telling her she wasn’t the only one going to college, and to come back after she’d done more digging on her own. I took her to the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation for financial counseling.”So how can I help you today?” asked the counselor.
“I have no idea how to do this,” said my B & G teen.
“Well, then, we know where to start,” said the angel-counselor.
And she was off.

Last week, she competed at the local level for the Youth of the Year title and gave a speech describing her “story”. Afterward, she answered questions before a panel of seven judges about her life. When she was asked the question:  “Where do you see yourself  in five years?” she looked straight at the judge and said, “I’ll be a marine biologist. And,” she laughed, “I’ll be in some pretty big debt.”

She won the title and the money. In May she’ll compete for the big money.

With no family culture that reinforced the importance of college, with no funds and then, with that dismissive response from the school’s guidance office, my B &G teen still found a way because she has one thing: a compelling desire to move on with her life.

There’s your level playing field.

Parents who can support their kids should. And many kids would not get as far as my B & G teen did without the lifelong expectation of a college education like a hand at their backs. Conversely, many kids who are walked through the process as our kids were, go on to set up very impressive staging for their futures on their own.

But here’s my sympathy tummy ache:

We should not be manipulated by our culture of parent-dependent achievement, or, the industries that profit from parent-anxiety, into thinking our kids lack the initiative to do the college thing without us.

When they are driven to move on with their lives, even without post-its on the refrigerator, they can.

And will.

Read more from Susan Bonifant on her blog, Worth Mentioning

Susan Bonifant

Susan Bonifant is an essayist and novelist who has launched four children and returned to a full-time writing career. Since 2008, Susan has maintained a blog titled "Worth Mentioning," where she captures a sometimes overlooked view of parenting, friendship, working, marriage, and other aspects of daily life that make them worth remembering. Susan is a member of the New Hampshire Writing Project and the Grub Street Organization in Boston. In addition to the Christian Science Monitor, she contributes to the Concord Monitor and blogs at <a href="">Worth Mentioning</a>. She lives in Hopkinton, New Hampshire with her husband Larry and writer-cat, Gus.

Kristen Daukas

Thursday 10th of April 2014

Love it. Our oldest is 15 and is so not driven but I'm insisting we have a 30 foot approach with her or she'll never get there. My 13 YO on the other hand, is choosing next year's 8th grade classes based on what she'll need for HS so we have no worries with her. If parents keep planning everything for their kids, pretty soon they'll be taking their classes for them, too.

Susan Bonifant

Thursday 10th of April 2014

Kristen, it was the same in my house. I know I had to dial down the assistance in some cases, and dial up the pressure in others but we got there. And you will too. I guess,having seen four of them through the process, I realize that what they take hold of once we're out of the picture can be surprising, in a good way.


Wednesday 9th of April 2014

Hmm....Even the motivated B&G club girl needed some helicoptering when it came to figuring out how to pay for college. Bottom line: the process is unfair and insane for all.

Susan Bonifant

Thursday 10th of April 2014

Thank you Judy, for the observation. I like to think of it as hand holding (passenger seat) versus helicoptering (driver's seat, sometimes with nobody else in the car) but we agree, few can get through such a foreign, confusing process without at least being pointed in the direction of resources.

Kim Jorgensen Gane

Wednesday 9th of April 2014

Hoorah! Hoorah! Great article, Susan!

I'm speaking before the "Smart Girls" of our local Boys & Girls Club tomorrow. I see myself becoming more involved there, and I hope I have the opportunity to help someone for whom college doesn't feel possible to believe and achieve otherwise someday.

We kept waiting for *it* to kick in with our girls. We didn't take them on campus tours because their grades didn't warrant it. I fear maybe that was backwards. Perhaps if we'd taken them, they would have been inspired to work a little harder in high school. Maybe as freshmen, maybe just to a college football game.

Our oldest did go to community college for two years while living at home, and while all of her friends including her now husband were away at college. She was miserable. But it motivated her to get into Purdue University. She worked all through college, hard, often not getting home until 4am after waiting tables. Her last couple semesters money ran out, and she had to pay her own tuition. She called in tears one day because she didn't have it, so I called the financial aid office in tears, and we found out what money was available that all she had to do was accept. It was enough to pay the first tuition payment, and gave us time to enter the FAFSA vortex and figure out the rest. She graduated after a total of five and a half years of college. Whew!

Stepdaughter wanted to go to a community college in a near-ish town. Great! We helped her move into her apartment. Then she planned to move to Florida for a boy, who turned out to be an asshat. He bailed on her at the last minute. She cried in my arms and told me that she really wanted to go to that school. She and I flew down, registered her at the private college she'd planned to attend, found her an apartment, and she ended up bravely moving down there all by herself. She finished her associates degree and became a personal trainer. Met another guy, married him, and he's on his way to being a very successful officer in the Airforce. She wants to go back to college to get her bachelor's, and I hope she does eventually. But in the meantime, she's doing what she's always done. Working hard and taking initiative in her job.

Perhaps we should have done more for our girls. But we had their little brother at home, and we were dealing with financial devastation. It was rocky and scary there for awhile, but we were always there to support them and help them in the ways we could. And I couldn't be more proud of where they are today and what strong, kind, hardworking, grateful women they both are.

Susan Bonifant

Thursday 10th of April 2014

Thank you, Kim, for the comment. And yes, in my opinion, however involved we get, we need to be informed by individual needs, life goals, history of success, and all the other things that tell us what we can and should offer. It's the assumption that things won't get done without us that I take issue with.

Claudia Schmidt

Wednesday 9th of April 2014

Having just literally finished this process with my daughter, who's a senior, I can appreciate it! My daughter is very independent and really did much of the work on her own, so I can't complain, but I think my son will be another story. It certainly wasn't like this when I was going to college, that's for sure!

Susan Bonifant

Thursday 10th of April 2014

And, you Claudia are wise to know their level of assistance need may differ. My point in writing about the extremes was to show that there is room somewhere in the middle for our kids to own more of the process. Good for you for tailoring your role to each teen's process.

Grown and Flown

Wednesday 9th of April 2014

Wonderful thought provoking post Susan, Your B&G girl is a real lesson to all of our kids...and us.

Susan Bonifant

Thursday 10th of April 2014

Thank you for reading and commenting. It was the first time I really examined how much I was pushing our own kids through the process more than "helping". We're lucky that they took the reins successfully, but wow, what angst.

Comments are closed.
Read previous post:
do your laundry or you'll die alone, life lessons, advice for new graduates, becky blades, graduation gift
Laundry Lessons and Midlife Losses: A Creative Journey

Editor's note: A few months ago Becky Blades asked me to take a look at her book, Do Your Laundry...