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We’re Not Waiting for College Acceptance Letters to Start Celebrating Our Senior

The fall of senior year can be a tense time for teens and their families. For the high school class of 2021, additional layers of uncertainty, frustration, and chaos exist. Preparing for standardized tests that keep getting cancelled, relying on video tours to visit schools, and being isolated from classmates all add up to an unusually challenging college application season.

Anyone familiar with the college process knows it takes soul-searching, critical thinking, and an awful lot of time. Hitting “submit” on an admissions portal is a huge accomplishment.

And in a year where many seniors are missing out on the special rituals, privileges, and events that would normally mark this stage of their lives, they need us to celebrate them. Recognizing other rites of passage can feel all the more meaningful.

Several years ago, our daughter became ill and endured a lengthy hospital stay—and an even longer recovery period. We weren’t sure if she could return to school that year, or maybe ever. We wondered how the experience would affect her future, especially when so much of her identity was tied to being a high-achieving student. There was a lot of worry to go around, but the experience gave us a gift of gratitude and perspective.

Appreciating effort and the process itself feels particularly important when your teen has hit some bumps along the way. When you’ve had a child encounter major obstacles, setbacks, or disruptions, you may have wondered if they would ever get to this point.

Even if we weren’t in pandemic conditions, we should be celebrating seniors for the effort that goes into the college application process.

Pausing to reflect on the experience and what it represents, rather than focusing only on the outcome, benefits our kids in so many ways. High school is not just a means to an end.

It’s tempting for teens to get their heart set on a particular school or to see admission to a selective college as validation of their effort or a measure of their worth. We need to remind our kids their value is not determined by some mysterious and fickle committee decision.

Who they already are is enough.

Now a senior, our daughter was the one who requested a tangible reward to celebrate her successful navigation of the college application process. She asked for something she had coveted for years, something she could take with her when she leaves home. So we splurged on the long-desired item: Ugg boots.

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While I would normally balk at the mention of a luxury gift, I was happy we could make her wish come true. Maybe it’s my background as an English teacher, but I can’t help but find symbolism in these boots. They represent our daughter’s resilience, her good sense, and her readiness to set off on her own, knowing we are still there to comfort her when she needs us. What more could a parent of a senior ask for?

When college decisions are announced, we will certainly commemorate the occasion. But we don’t need to wait until the spring to give her a congratulatory gift. We’re celebrating her now: What she has already accomplished. Who she already is.

In education for over twenty years, Oona Hanson is a parent coach who supports families with teens and tweens as they navigate the challenges of adolescence. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. You can learn more about Oona and her work at In addition, Oona is a Family Mentor at Equip, an eating disorder treatment program.

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