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College Acceptance and Rejection Considerations

by Ellen Gibran-Hesse

I am an attorney and life coach who helps parents with young adults still living at home as well helping young adults achieve independence.  With two sons in college, I remember quite well the frantic last years in high school. All the tests to be taken such as the ACT, SAT, the subject matter cousin tests to those two, and the AP placement tests caused abundant stress. Of course, there were trips to colleges and universities both in state and out. Finally all the applications due right around Thanksgiving of senior year had to be sent out and test reports coordinated. Mentally fried to a crisp, we parents still endured “senioritis” and a downswing in our senior’s motivation while we planned graduation parties and events.

Now comes peaceful January. But in a few short months, around April, the notices of acceptance or rejection start to arrive and reality starts to sink in for students and parents. Many parents picture this as a foregone conclusion. Usually, students have settled on a favorite college. Most students have second or third choices as well. Even though many of us took our students on tours and visits, students and their parents make choices based on superficial considerations. The fact that other friends chose it, or they like the look, the prestige, and yes, a few will like the reputation of the school as a party school all have played out as factors. Very few parents or students look at whether or not the major must be declared in freshman year or if that can wait until after the first two years of general education requirements.

Parents don’t take seriously the need to have a major. This came from the old idea in our generation, that if you had any degree, you would get a good job. That was true then because degrees weren’t common. It is no longer true at all. One study found that most college age students expect to be making six figures after graduation. The reality is they will be making less than $40,000 a year and frequently in the mid to lower $30,000 a year range. As one father told me, his step-daughter called to say she had made a raise in her first job several years following graduation. She was so happy but he was stunned when she told him she was now making $35,000 a year. He said he was afraid to ask what she was making before. After spending about that much each year to go to the university this seemed like a joke. If you aren’t careful, your investment in all those years will be very disappointing.

If nothing else, parents need to be involved in inspiring their student to prepare for a career and helping them get there emotionally. This does not mean monitoring grades. I get that question all the time from parents of new college students. The path to finishing college no longer resembles what we of the Baby Boom generation followed. We simply stayed at the same institution and got our degree. Of course, your student will most likely change majors like changing clothes and we did that also. But unlike us, students today tend to change schools. This is a good thing. They may find the school too big, too small, more of a commuter school, too many general education requirements taught by teaching assistants who are graduate students and have no idea how to teach, the list goes on and on as to what the new factors are in choosing a good match. I encourage parents to keep open the idea that in several years your student will be switching schools. Many colleges and universities require you to complete the first two years at another school before transferring, however as the trend becomes more common, that may not be the case.

If it isn’t dawning on you now, picking the college is not the end of your job. Both of my sons applied to 8 colleges since they were less than 4.0 students with average test scores. They were admitted to 7 and in both cases, the college that was their first pick rejected them. It is not the end of the world. They went on to their second choices and have undergone transfers or are in the process and realize that their criterion for college selection has changed. Do not get attached to their choice at this time. These are years of exploring who they are and moving around to different colleges prepares them for a number of life skills. My oldest son has a year to go to finish his degree and is in his third school. He has lived in different cities, made new friends, and seen how different schools operate. He is where he finally feels good about his major. I have seen that happen many times. Another young woman was rejected by George Washington University as an incoming freshman. She spent two years at another school, made excellent grades, and did significant work in internships and transferred her third year to George Washington. Keep your options and eyes open for a lot of changes in the coming few years.

Finally, many students will not make it through the first few years. Only half of the students entering a four year college will graduate. Of those, about half will go home to live with mom and dad. The latest statistic from the Census Bureau is that 22 million young adults are living at home. Parents don’t talk about these things. Everyone hears from their friends whose students are following the perfect path and assume only they and their student have failed. Actually, the perfect path is the minority. Think of it as a fairy tale. It is heart breaking to hear the parents of college postponers get angry or upset with their student. In their mind, the degree has to be there or their student can’t work. This is not true. Our job should be to help our student develop a work resume as early as high school. I spoke to one job recruiter and asked her what she looks for in young hires. They look at the work resume, the references. They only look at college degrees if there is no work history and even then it is only hopeful if the young person was at the top of the class or in a prestigious school. If at all possible get your student working in their area of interest this summer or at the very latest in the summer following second year. I have numerous examples of the student starting in such an internship, then getting paid by the third summer and in the running for a job upon graduation. It is the working and the connections that count, not the degree. If your student is doing this and drops out, they will be more prepared to work full time. This is the reality. Many students will not finish college. Prepare them to be in working mode and you will be light years ahead of parents who believe the degree and job offer come together. Above all enjoy this adventure. It too passes quickly.

Ellen Gibran-Hesse is a solo practitioner attorney with a B.S. in psychology and a single mother of two sons ages 21 and 18.  She has done extensive work in non-profit organizations with teens and young adults and helped family and friends to successfully launch their children into a successful transition into adulthood for over five years.  She is currently writing a book to assist other parents and parent groups based on her research and experience. 

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