Support Your Teen During the Final Stretch of the College Admissions Process

Right now, many high school seniors are eagerly waiting to see emails from college admissions officers. Parents are waiting too and are often as nervous as their kids. I know the feeling, as I have been through this waiting game three times now. This stage of the college process can feel like the final mile of a marathon that kids have been on for the last four years or longer. Weekends spent on SAT or ACT tests, late-night study sessions, countless hours spent on sports, service, family obligations, paid work, or other extracurriculars, and endless revisions made to personal essays have led to this moment. 

At Challenge Success, a research-based education nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, we know from surveying over 150,000 high school students that the college admissions process can be one of the top sources of stress for young people. This final stretch can be a time of celebration or of disappointment and heartbreak when teens receive the news. And even after they hear the “yes” or “no” from the colleges, students and their families can experience stress as they try to determine which school to choose and what the implications of that choice may be for future success.

Instead of thinking only about the finish line, it may be more helpful for parents – and students – to think of the college admissions process as a time for exploration and self-discovery where teens can consider who they are and who they want to be. The process offers opportunities to navigate disappointment, joy, and tough choices, and to practice resilience and independence.   

Here are five practical tips to help families support their teens during this last leg of the college admissions process.

  1. Make a plan for how your teen (and you) will receive the news from colleges. We recommend that teens open emails from colleges in private rather than finding out in class in the middle of the school day or having a parent live stream it on social media. If the news is not good, your teen may need some support and time to grieve, and they will likely be watching your reaction as well. As a parent, consider going to a separate room from your teen after hearing the news, so you can celebrate or grieve alone and have a few moments to regulate your emotions.


  2. Be mindful of how you share your admissions news with others. Remember that your teen’s friends and classmates (and their families) may still be nervously awaiting answers from colleges. Be thoughtful about not oversharing on social media, and don’t ask other parents if their senior got into a certain school; wait for them to share their news when they are ready.


  3. Avoid saying “just”. When you talk to or about your teen, be mindful about using the word “just” as in: “She is just going to community college” or “My son is just a B student so he only got into his safety school.” This can convey a comparison to a fixed ideal and imply that your teen doesn’t measure up. Remind your child that they are enough as they are and that they will have the opportunity to flourish wherever they go to college.


  4. Invest in college readiness skills. Regardless of where they go, make sure your teen has all the basic life skills needed to be independent in college. Do they know how to cook at least three meals that don’t involve cereal? Can they do their own laundry? Do they know how to clean the bathroom? Can they balance a bank account? Can they ask for help if they are feeling down or struggling at school? These skills take time to develop and are as important, if not more, than academic readiness.


  5. Remind teens that where they go matters less than what they do when they get there. We do not say this lightly. Research supports that engagement in college is more important than where a student goes. While picking a college can feel like a monumental decision, we encourage teens (and parents) to realize that this one choice is not going to make or break their chances for future success. To see more of this research and what engagement in college looks like, explore the Challenge Success white paper, A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Rankings.

We know that the college admissions process is daunting and can cause kids and families to experience high levels of stress. Even if your teen experiences disappointments or difficulties along the way, we urge you to take a breath, remember what is truly important to your family, and celebrate whatever adventure lies ahead for your student. 

Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Co-Founder of Challenge Success and a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, where she specializes in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning. She is the author of, “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Dr. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity. She is a 3-time recipient of the Stanford University School of Education Outstanding Teacher and Mentor Award and was honored with the 2012 Education Professor of the Year “Educators’ Voice Award” from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences.