College and University:
For our EAGLE Parents:
The College Application Process
Advice from MIT Admissions
For Parents: Helping Your Kids Through This Process
If you’re like most parents, helping your child find the right college feels like one of your last great parental responsibilities – as important as having taught that long-ago baby to walk. This time, however, the job is more complicated. You may be less certain of how best to help, and the stakes can seem painfully high.
As you and your son or daughter begin this process together, it’s useful to get some perspective on the roles you may want to play:
Preparing for a rite of passage
Try to see the admissions process as a rite of passage – a challenging initiation that marks the passage out of childhood and into adult responsibility. In our secular society, we share very few such formal milestones; that makes the application process valuable in its own right, however it unfolds. You can and should provide support and encouragement. You can celebrate each step along the way. But the process must belong to your child.
Cheering from the sidelines
Here’s another useful way to look at things: It’s as if your child were about to appear in a recital. You can help make sure he or she sleeps well beforehand, eats a good breakfast, dresses properly and gets there on time – but at that point you have to step back and let the child perform. You would never run up on stage and start playing the piano if your child missed a note; in the same way, in applying to college your child must be the only one in charge of his or her own performance. Practically speaking, that means you need to make sure you are not too caught up in the process yourself. Watch the language you use: if you find yourself referring to “our application,” you are not allowing your child enough room.
It also means that prospective students should do all their own work. They should be the ones to go online or call for application materials. They should set up their own interviews and attend them on their own. They should ask their own questions on campus tours. They should conceive of and execute their own essays and application answers. For young adults, taking this initiative is an important way of trying their wings, the first step toward flying away to create a life of their own.
Broadening your child’s horizons
Young people come to the process of college admissions with lots of unspoken assumptions – “My parents would never let me go so far from home.” “We could never afford an out-of-state school.” “Dad really thinks I should go to his alma mater.” “I’m not a math jock like my sister, so I could never go to MIT.” Help your son or daughter think as broadly as possible, early in the search process, so he or she has a better chance of finding a school that fits.
It helps to remember that college admissions aren’t the same as when you may have applied to college yourself. In the last two or three decades, the process has become dramatically more pressured and competitive, and students now routinely apply to many more schools than before.
In many cases, individual schools are different now, too. They may be stronger in certain areas, or be emphasizing entirely new things. Be sure you’re working with current information. For example, if your impression of MIT (or any other institution) comes mainly from a friend who graduated in the 1970s, you owe it to yourself and your child to get a more recent perspective. And if you only know a school through guidebooks or general word of mouth, it probably pays to visit.
Finding the right fit
For your son or daughter, the college search and application process should be about one thing only: finding the right fit. Does that mean finding a school where he or she will blend in without a trace? Not necessarily. Does it mean that there’s only one perfect school for every applicant? Obviously not. Fit means finding a community where your child shares the fundamental values and priorities, and feels comfortable enough to take the social and intellectual risks that make college really worthwhile.
Fit is also a two way proposition. Your child’s job is to find the school that feels right. Our job in Admissions is to choose – from among thousands of qualified applicants – the students we think are most likely to thrive in and contribute something important to the community of MIT. Again, does that mean there is some “ideal” MIT student, and if your son or daughter can only match that magic profile, he or she is in for sure? Fortunately, no – or MIT would be a horribly dull place. You and your child know his or her strengths and potential; we know the strengths and potential of MIT. The goal is to find the right match between the two.
Getting ready for the decision
A critical job for parents is to make sure that young people don’t interpret disappointing admissions decisions as a terrible verdict on their worth as a human being. Many students describe finding the right school for them as a little like falling in love: one trip to the campus and they “just knew.” That kind of intense emotional connection can make it especially distressing if an application is denied.
No matter how confident you are of your son’s or daughter’s abilities and college chances, it’s a good idea to find some way, perhaps long in advance, of talking about disappointments or reversals in your own life. That way, whatever the outcome, your child will know that it is all right to feel hurt, frustrated, even heartbroken – but that the hurt eventually goes away, life goes on and other doors inevitably open.
Dealing with disappointment
If a letter from a college brings sad news, you may feel tremendous frustration and disappointment. But your job at that moment is to manage your own reaction so you can help your child move forward with confidence. If your child is not accepted for admission, it is not a reflection on your skill as a parent, nor a reflection on the worth of your child. Most often, rejections are due to too many excellent applicants and too few available spaces. Your support and encouragement are obviously especially important if your child is not admitted to his or her first-choice school.
In the face of serious disappointment, children (even very mature 17- year-olds) suffer more than adults because they have less perspective. Help your child look around at other adults you know living happy, fulfilling lives. Almost certainly, they did not all attend the “perfect” college, nor did their lives proceed “perfectly” after that. There are many, many paths to becoming an interesting, successful person; one of life’s hardest but most useful lessons is that we don’t always get to choose which one we take.