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I’ve Sent 5 Children to College — Here Are 6 Helpful Lessons I Learned

College acceptance anxiety is not just for high school seniors. Parents get to feel anxious about college acceptances, too! Frankly, I was more anxious about Decision Days than my teenagers.

Because the college acceptance process was almost entirely beyond my control, I spent most Decision Days taking deep calming breaths, nervous about my kids leaving the nest, but also afraid that they wouldn’t go anywhere.

My eldest applied to her college early decision. When her acceptance letter arrived, I sighed with relief. Surely, I thought, from here on out, everything would be smooth sailing. But no, I was, unfortunately, wrong about thinking that way. That was just Day One of many MANY more anxious days to follow.

When this same child went to her first summer overnight camp for two months, I wept. Now she’d leave for whole years at a time. Four years. Maybe graduate school would follow. Or she’d find a job far from home.… I might never see her again! (I admit, I’m not so great with transitions.)

Anticipating our goodbye overwhelmed me at random moments. I wept while washing the dishes. Shed tears shopping for groceries. Cried in bed at night. It felt like my family unit was breaking.

Fast-forward a bunch of years, and sending four more kids to college, I thought each send-off would be easier — but here’s the thing: it wasn’t. Every college send-off presented its own challenges.

Three of my five kids applied to college needing very little parental oversight. My husband and I read their application essays, took them to visit campuses, and helped with their final decisions. Other than that, these three kids, pretty much, drove the entire process on their own.

My other two kids? One missed the deadline to apply for scholarship money. The other received an invitation to apply for a scholarship (and didn’t tell us), and then never applied for the scholarship because the application was “too long.” These two kids could have benefited from a bit more hand holding.

There were plenty of ups and downs with all of my kids and every bump in the road taught us something. Despite the steep learning curve, we launched them into their adult lives successfully. Dare I say, if I had a sixth child, I think I could really nail this college thing? Ha! No, I wouldn’t go that far. I do, however, have some words of hard-earned wisdom.

1. College admissions are about as predictable as winning the lottery, and just as impersonal.

Try not to take college admissions personally. Colleges make business decisions that have very little, if anything, to do with your particular child or who “deserves” to get in. Colleges need to meet their financial, diversity, and demographic goals, plus honor legacy admits. They may need an opera singer, a field goal kicker, someone who speaks seven languages, or someone else who has another random skill your kid doesn’t have. Your child may not win a spot for reasons you will never know, so please don’t take rejection to mean they weren’t “good enough.”

2. Ground in reality, and set realistic expectations early on.

Review your finances and let your kid know how much you can afford to pay for college. It makes no sense to apply to a dream school that neither of you can financially afford. On the other hand, if schools are generous with financial aid, your kid might want to apply and see what happens. Typically, there’s no way to know the actual cost of attending until the school’s financial aid package arrives. Have this conversation about finances before your kids apply!

3. Prepare yourself (and your kid) for disappointment.

For many of our kids, college is part of life, which means at some point they’ll have to deal with rejection and disappointment. If a rejection comes, try to look at it as an opportunity to flex your parenting skills. Show your kids love and support to help them build resilience. They might feel devastated for an hour, or maybe a day, but eventually they’ll recover and move on.

4. If you can, visit the schools before you make a final decision.

If your student has been accepted by more than one college and you know you can afford those schools, go visit the college campuses. Why? Because your kid may love a particular school on paper (or online, or by reputation) but hate it in person. Or vice versa. Your kid might rank a school least desirable but then fall in love with it in person. When I took my fourth kid to visit her admitted schools, she lit up the moment we drove onto the campus of the school she ultimately attended.

4. Let your kids decide who they want to inform, and when.

Kids have to deal with so much comparison, especially when they’re applying to colleges at the same time as their peers. Why not give them a reprieve and let them determine when (or if) they want to go public with news about where they’re applying and whether or not they got in? Let them deal with the sting of disappointment in private. If there’s cause for celebration, celebrate with your family and let your student be the one to share the news publicly. This is their time to shine, not yours.

5. There is no “right” way to say goodbye.

I wept when we dropped off our firstborn at college and I felt despair when we dropped off our youngest. Dropping off the other three was a different story. I felt guilty for not crying as hard or feeling as sad, and I thought my reaction was strange because I loved them just as much. But now, because of so many parents sharing with me how they felt saying goodbye to their kids, I’ve realized there are no wrong feelings here.

6. Give yourself time and space to process your feelings.

The best advice I received from friends with older kids is to plan a special treat for yourself if you’re coming home to an empty nest. You might try a weekend retreat or a comforting staycation. A romantic dinner with your partner or a fun night out with your friends. A road trip for a change of scenery, or some other option. Give yourself some time and space to adjust to this new stage in your life. Finding a great therapist helps, too.

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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