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Keeping the College Application Process Sane

A friend sent me a column from an April Martha’s Vineyard Times. The author is responding to an article published here at PsychCentral in which I tried to reassure high school seniors that the hoopla over who gets into what college isn’t as important as they may think. (See Waiting for College Acceptance Letters) The writer asks, “What about the tattered lives of the grownups who’ve suffered through the whole dreadful experience, and whose reward is to pay the bills? Enough about the kids. What about us?”

What about us? Although this year’s crop of seniors and their parents are now at the end of the college application year, the juniors are right behind. For them, this is the summer of college visits and discussions about future plans. This is when the reality of what’s ahead financially and emotionally begins to hit hard. In high schools where academics are king, the emphasis on the college application process has already begun.

The experience doesn’t need to be dreadful. Kids don’t need to be stressed. Parents don’t need to suffer. Parents don’t need to give up the idea of retiring in order to send kids to school. There is much that we parents can do to keep things sane and in balance.

The trick is not to let yourselves get caught up in the mythology. You’ll save yourself and your student a tremendous amount of stress. You may also save your marriage, your relationship with your kid, and your bank account in the process. What college your child gets into is not a measure of your success as a parent or your child’s worthiness. Choosing and applying to schools doesn’t have to be fraught with drama and crisis, unless you like that sort of thing.

Let’s take a look at some of the myths that make so much trouble for so many:

  • Myth 1: A college education is a necessity for success in life. Although it is true that on average college graduates make more money over time than those who stopped with a high school diploma, don’t make the assumption that a four-year college is the best choice for your student. What does she or he want to do? College isn’t a necessity, for example, if your student prefers to work in the trades, wants a career in culinary arts, has a knack for making sales, or has a special talent that is in demand. College may even be torture for a student who doesn’t function well in an academic environment but shines on the job.

    Research what it takes to get where your student wants to go. It may be that a trade school, internships, the military, or just working up the company ladder is the way for your student to find success and satisfaction in life.

  • Myth 2: If your child blew it in high school, there is no chance he or she can go to college. Wrong. Lots of kids don’t do well in high school. Some are distracted by difficult situations at home. Some are more interested in athletics. Some have come to believe that they just can’t do well in academics or have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Some fall into the drug culture or partying or a bad relationship or depression. Whatever the reason, a high school transcript full of Ds and Fs isn’t the whole story. Your child doesn’t have to give up on college and you don’t have to feel inferior to the parents of kids who regularly managed to be on the honor roll.

    One road to a second chance is through your local community college. Your student can go to work for a couple of years to get some lessons in life and take a couple of classes at night each semester to build a track record of academic success. Some tutoring to learn how to write a decent paper and how to study might also be a good idea. Once your child has matured a little and demonstrated the ability to manage the academics with some good grades, he or she can either matriculate at the community college and go for an associates degree (with or without the idea of going on for a bachelors later) or can apply directly to a four-year school.

    Another route is through a group of colleges that actually accept students based on their potential instead of their grades. Yes, there really are such places. I know. One of my kids and I found several after he blew off high school, then had a change of heart.

    Finally, there are schools that aren’t well known and have trouble filling their freshman class. Believe it or not, some of them are excellent. When you do a college search on the Internet, lower your standards a notch or two and see what comes up. If you go to visit, you may find fine people who are trying to build up their school by focusing on turning out kids who have done well rather than by only letting top achievers in. Many, many high school failures become college successes. Remember, Einstein didn’t do well in high school either.

  • Myth 3: Kids should go right to college or they will lose momentum. Wrong again. Many students really aren’t ready to go to college right out of high school. They don’t know why they’re going. They don’t know what they want to study. They don’t know what else they should do at this time in their lives. College shouldn’t be a fully funded “halfway house” for the 18- to 22-year-old crowd to find themselves. Kids in that position usually party too much and study too little. There are better, and cheaper, ways for kids to figure out what they want for their lives. (See Are You Ready for College? Alternatives for the Unsure.)
  • Myth 4: Only the top colleges are worth considering. Keep it all in perspective. Remember what the person who graduates at the bottom of his or her medical class is called: Doctor. Any accredited institution is going to offer at least some excellent classes, excellent teachers, and excellent opportunities. It’s how your student goes about choosing classes and how seriously he or she goes about getting an education that counts. Where your student went to school won’t be as important as what your student learned and who your student took the time to get to know.

  • Myth 5: The schools that are the most difficult to get into are the best. Yes, there are schools that only accept two percent of those who apply. But most schools accept over half. Some schools are delighted to finally be turning anyone away. And guess what? Those statistics have nothing at all to do with whether your kid will get a good education or be a success. Instead of looking at acceptance statistics alone, consider things like availability of faculty, whether faculty actually teach undergraduate courses, size of classes, and what kinds of support services are available. When you visit, look around and assess whether you feel like your student “fits” with the kids you see on campus. Read the bulletin boards. Are the posted activities things your student will likely take advantage of? Focus on finding the best school for your child, not the “best” by reputation.
  • Myth 6: If I haven’t already heard of a school, my kid shouldn’t consider it. The list of schools you’ve heard of is a function of what the guidance office promotes, what your friends are talking about, where you live, and what your student has heard about from other students. If you combine the information from all of those resources, you’ll probably come up with maybe 30 schools. There are more than 3,300 accredited colleges in the United States. Many of them have what your student is looking for. Many of them offer at least as many, and perhaps more, than the schools you and your child think you have your heart set on. Do a college search on a site like Petersons and you’ll probably come up with a couple of dozen schools that offer what your student wants from a college. My youngest surprised us by finding a school through an Internet search that no one in her high school guidance office knew about. We went to visit. She was right. The school has everything she wants and needs to pursue her interests.
  • Myth 7: Your student should go to the college of his or her choice. This myth makes trouble for lots of families. College is not just your child’s choice. If the family is at all subsidizing the cost, the choice also has to factor in what the family can afford and what values the family wants to support. Wise parents sit down with their kids as early as possible to lay out both what the student wants and what the family can do. What are you, the parents, willing to pay for? How much is in that college fund? How much is reasonable for you, the parents, to take out in loans and what is reasonable for the student, given all you know about him or her and the future earning potential of the chosen field? Do you, as parents, have any values-based requirements for the college choice? What does the student want from a college education? What are the top three most important factors as far as your student is concerned: Major? Size? Location? The chance to play Ultimate Frisbee? The final choice needs to be the result of respectful collaboration.
  • Myth 8: Students are entitled to a college education. Wrong again. College is a gift, not an entitlement. When the child was born, you didn’t sign a contract guaranteeing extending dependence for four or more years after high school. By law, parents are obligated to care for children until age 18. After that, it’s up to you. Young adult children who understand that they are receiving a valuable gift are more likely to take their education seriously.
  • Myth 9: You get what you pay for. Only the expensive private schools are really good. Yes, many private institutions truly are wonderful. Some are even $48,000 per year wonderful. But they aren’t the only wonderful schools. Some of the best schools in the country are very reasonably priced. Some states have excellent state schools where the tuition is within reach for most in-state students. Faith-based schools often are bargains. Put a price range of under $10,000 per year in the criteria for your Internet college search. You’ll be surprised what comes up. Students don’t have to mortgage their futures and parents don’t have to mortgage their houses for students to get a fine education.
  • Myth 10: Parents need to be involved every step of the way. Think about it. If your child can’t research schools, manage her or his time to stay abreast of current classes and do applications, get the paperwork in on time, and ask people for recommendations, how on earth is he or she going to do the research for papers, get papers in on time, manage to keep priorities straight, and approach professors at college — without the benefit of your advice and nagging? Yes, provide some guidance. Yes, be available to talk about your student’s hopes and dreams. But if the college application process takes up a great deal of your time, if you find yourself organizing, managing, and reminding your student, and if you find yourself more invested than your student, maybe your student isn’t ready to go.

It’s time for beliefs to shift. Please don’t get me wrong. Higher education is one of the most important gifts we can give our children. But the whole culture of the college application process has gotten way out of control for too many families. It’s way past time for beliefs and attitudes to shift away from old myths to new realities. Any child who wants a college education can have one (even kids who didn’t finish high school) — as long as he or she isn’t invested in going to one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in the country. The process of finding and applying to schools goes best when parents hold that perspective and maintain a sense of humor and when students widen their search beyond the most well-known schools. Then this stage of parenting becomes yet another interesting and exciting part of the journey toward a child’s independence, not an emotionally draining ordeal.

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Keeping the College Application Process Sane

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Keeping the College Application Process Sane. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.