It must be September, because the parents of high school seniors are panicked about college. As a high school counselor, I did everything but give away free gas to get parents to visit me in the spring, but usually to no avail. Now, I'm buying my groceries in the next county because so many parents want to solve their senior's college woes in Aisle 6 of the corner supermarket.
The stress of applying to college is not lost on me. But unlike running from a burning building or scoring a Harry Potter book at midnight, stress doesn't help the college selection process. If you feel you're behind, the best thing to do is forget about the stress and start talking to two important college experts.
The first expert is your high school senior, the person who will be going to college. You may have missed the February college night for juniors and the college fair last May, but chances are your child has picked up more than enough information to bring you up to speed – plus, they know what they're looking for in a college.
Of course, this might not be easy. Teenagers often seem feisty, uncommunicative, and embarrassed by your every move. Ask them about college plans, and you may as well be doing the Macarena at the bus stop. You need an approach that shows respect for them as independent people, interest in their opinions, and an understanding of their values.
So go buy a pizza.
Sitting down with a pizza creates a common interest (food), a relaxed atmosphere, and something to do in the event of an awkward silence. In the middle of their second slice, tell them you want to help them apply to college, but you don't want to hassle them. As a result, you'll sit down once a week for 20 minutes to talk about college, and unless they bring it up some other time, that will be it.
The 20-minute weekly meeting is the only time you nudge them about application deadlines (NOT on Friday night as they're heading to the game), and ask how college plans are going. In return, they use the meeting to ask if you wrote the check for the application to State U., or why you asked that embarrassing question when you visited a college last week. You get the information you need, they don't feel you're invading their turf, and everyone gets a snack. Voilà!
After about two or three of these meetings, you're ready to meet the second expert, your child's school counselor. If you haven't met the counselor before, don't worry; the goal here is to make sure everyone knows how to help your child find a college that's right. Since most school counselors have far too many students, the challenge is to reach that goal in a short period of time – about 18 minutes. But since you've found a way to talk with your senior about college and not look like a dork, you can do anything.
When the meeting comes, you and your child greet the counselor and you ask these questions:
1. What should my child focus on as a student this year? The counselor can talk about your child's schedule, what teachers think of your child, and what they think your child should do to grow as a person – it's wide open.
2. Can we tell you a little about our child that we think would help you with their college plans? This is a forced question few counselors say no to, and they shouldn't. If you talk about your concerns and interests for just a few minutes (practice at home), the counselor can ask questions, and really get to know what you're thinking about for your child's life after high school.
3. Does my child have a realistic list of colleges? Your child should drop a copy of this list off to the counselor three days before the meeting – that way, the counselor can prepare a solid answer.
4. What are the deadlines for submitting applications to you? This is probably in the school's college handbook or website, but ask (and write down the answer) so everyone knows the deadlines.
5. What's the best way to get in touch with you? Most counselors are either e-mail or phone people, so here's their chance to share their preference, and your chance to further respect their time. Two big no-nos here for parents are asking "quick questions" if you see the counselor at a school function (or the supermarket) and dropping in at the counselor's office without an appointment. Counselors want the chance to serve you well; give them that chance, and send the quick questions in via the counselor's preferred way.
Feeling bad about getting a late start on college won't help your child. Instead, use that energy to consult with two local college experts, and the rush will make you want to do the Macarena.
Just not in front of the children.
Patrick O'Connor is the author of "College is Yours in 600 Words or Less."