Planning for College: Keep Calm and Control What You Can.

This is a sponsored post for SheSpeaks on behalf of Kaplan Test Prep.

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A week or two ago I got an email from my son Jacob’s school with registration dates for the PSAT (a preliminary version of the SAT.)

At first, I dismissed the email, thinking I’d somehow wound up lumped in with parents of upperclassmen.

Then it came to me with a start: “Holy cow, I’m the mother of a high school junior.” 

Of course I’d known that all along, but these milestones have a way of sneaking up on you. One day Jacob was a gawky eighth grader; now he’s thinking about life beyond high school. And Isaac, currently a freshman, will follow just a couple of years later.

That means we need to be thinking seriously about what happens after they get that high-school diploma. 

GULP.

After all the years it took me to get into a confident groove as a mom, it’s easy now to forget it all, panic and feel woefully unprepared for the “what’s next” part.

I went off to college less than twenty years ago, but in that short time the landscape seems to have completely changed. Even with a lackluster high-school transcript, I was pretty much guaranteed entry into a solid state university. And the tuition, I remember well, was less than $10,000 per year – including room and board.

These days it all feels so much more fraught, urgent, and uncertain. Some of that might be perception (yes, everything seems more competitive now, but the state university I attended is still relatively easy to get into.)

But here’s reality: the competition at elite schools has, indeed, gotten way more intense…and it’s trickled down to our kids’ school experience.

And the costs have gone up significantly, too: in the case of the state school I attended, we’re talking double in less than two decades. Whether you have one kid or five like me, when you do the math it can all start to look pretty bleak. 

But after indulging in some late-night anxiety attacks, I’ve decided there is only one strategy that can really work in the long run: 

Keep calm, and control what you can.

Keeping calm is perhaps the more difficult part. These days it’s so easy to get caught up in the insanity of it all, signing your kids up for multiple activities and encouraging already-overloaded teens to bulk up their resume in the hopes that an admissions officer will deem them more well-rounded, interesting, community-minded and worthy of acceptance.

But all kids are so different. For example, my 15-year-old Isaac is intrinsically more studious and achievement-oriented than my junior, Jacob, who’s a natural rebel, questioner and individualist. Isaac is much more willing to “play the game” needed to get into a more prestigious school, while Jacob dissects the process, asking “why” at every step of the way. He might enroll in a four-year university right after high school…or he might wind up working on a fishing boat in Alaska.

You know what, though? Both of them are going to be OK. 

They’re both engaged, interested, thoughtful, funny young men. And while I know getting their kids into a prestigious school is a huge priority for a lot of parents, I’m more interested in equipping them with the life skills, determination and independence to make the most of whatever situation they find themselves in. 

Controlling what I can is the second part of the equation, and for me that means making firm decisions about where to invest our limited energy and resources.

For example, I don’t know the exact, magical combination of extracurricular activities, community service and leadership roles, AP courses, and awards and accolades that would make my teens rise to the top of a college applicant pool.

But GPAs plus ACT and SAT scores are less subjective, and can also help make students eligible for merit-based financial aid. Since that’s the case, it seems to me to make a lot more sense to let my teenagers follow their passions, talents and interests in a natural (and sane!) way and help them get their grades and test scores up: that way we can mark progress as we go, and will have a pretty good idea of where each child stands by the beginning of his senior year.

Controlling what I can also means not freaking out if my kids aren’t following the path it seems “all the other” kids are or the one all the other parents seem to value most. After all, my kids might complete grad school and beyond…or they might go to technical school, become entrepreneurs, or do something completely different. It’s up to them, not me. 

In the end, all I can really control is supporting my teens by giving them access to resources that can help them like test prep, tutoring, and academic counseling, and by making it clear that I know they are capable of great things. 

When you think about it, that’s not so different from mothering a preschooler, is it? 

I was compensated for writing this post, but as always, the opinions, ideas, and parenting experiences reflected are all mine.  

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  1. Alexandria