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College Apps? Holiday Stress? How to Avoid the Crash

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angry young blonde woman w/ smoke coming out of her ears.

This post was written by Sonja Montiel and her daughter, Bella.

Mom: “Twenty-pound turkey?”

Bella: “Check.”

Mom: “Vegan alternative for Aunt Claudine?”

Bella: “Check. We’re making mushroom lentil loaf … Pinterest.”

Mom: “Chair rental confirmed for the what-seems-like-100-people-coming-over?”

Bella: “Check, mom. Just relax.”

Mom: “Time carved out to finish college applications because we didn’t do them over the summer like your counselor told us?”

Bella: “What?”

Mom: “Yeah, don’t you have four applications to complete? And don’t they each have three essays that you haven’t started yet? Oh, and what about those required recommendation letters, resumes and official test scores?”

Bella: “Oh yeah, those will get done.”

Mom: “When?”

Bella: (Silence)

Mom: “When?!”

Bella: “Mom, I’ll get them done. But I’m going out with friends right now, so after I get back. BYE!”

I’ve been a college counselor for 20 years and I can tell you, the conversation above happens between parents and kids way more often than you think. The parents tell me so when they return from holiday break, usually with tired eyes and thinner hair. Families are surprised how planning, preparing and implementing the college process seem to hit at once, just in time for the bottleneck of the holiday season. Applying to college is one huge procrastination feast.

No person, online blog, book or documentary can prepare parents for the emotional demands of helping their teen through the college process. Those of us who went to college in historic times (like 10 years ago, or, OK, 20 years ago) are completely aware of how different requirements and deadlines are now. We just don’t know what those differences are and/or how to help our teens. With this uncertainty, some of us hover constantly over our teens micromanaging from advice we get from other parents.

Bella: I am not sure where you heard that advice mom. Oh, our neighbors? Did they work in college admissions? Oh, they didn’t? We are both stressed out from hearsay then?

Others of us simply release ourselves of the burden and say to our teens, “Handle it. Be the independent young adult you wish to be.” Then we walk out of the room smiling because we displayed some awesomeness in our parenting. Besides, we have shopping to do.

Bella: Once you walk out the room, I sit there in frustration wondering how I’m going to do this without my parent’s help. While you are learning to carve turkey on YouTube, I’ll be on YouTube distracting myself with ASMR videos because I’m freaked out about what to do with my applications. Without help, I am shutting down.

Whether we are the overbearing or laid-back kind of parent, the unpredictability of our teen’s motivation and emotions through this process can send us running for the hills.

But there is hope!

It’s simple actually. I believe that there are three factors that lead to a successful planning process between parents and teens:

1) Parents are available and approachable.

2) Parents support and mentor with more listening than talking.

3) Parents and teens understand that they may not know everything and when questions or doubts come up, they seek guidance from the professionals: school and college counselors.

When teaching teens to drive, we don’t throw the keys and car to our kids and wish them luck (illegal by the way). Instead, we either hire a professional driving school to take the reins, or we have the guts to get in the passenger side and teach them how to drive. Teens are nervous and anxious (sometimes way too excited), and look to us to learn. Why wouldn’t the college application process be the same? Yes, this process is about teaching teens academic independence, but like driving, we must be available because they are uncertain, stressed and have never faced this process or these decisions before.

Bella: Like the time my mom took me to an empty parking lot and I freaked out when one slow car went my direction. I may have cried. Through practice, and knowing my mom remained calm, I’ve gained confidence. Now I’m driving independently on freeways and making grocery runs when my mom needs more milk.

So, you probably have the checklist to plan out the holidays? Awesome. Now, let us give you a checklist to carve out time for college planning and applications:

Keep it consistent.

Agree on a reasonable schedule for you and your teen to meet. For example, you agree to meet Monday and Wednesday afternoons from 3 to 4 p.m. reviewing what needs to be completed, sent, and/or written. Create an application timeline and review it every time you meet. Close each meeting with an agreement to reasonable assignments due by the next meeting.

Keep it together.

Parents this is for you: Don’t panic or display high levels of negative emotion. Your teens are looking to you to keep calm and centered. Remember, this isn’t your college process. Help teens understand the requirements and time needed to complete applications. Ask them what is doable. They need to feel accountable for their applications as well as have a sense of ownership.

Keep it exciting.

Our society has created too much anxiety over this process. As a consequence, we have forgotten that this is actually an exciting time for families as they watch their teen make decisions about the future. Protect that journey. If conversations or emotions get way too intense, take time to ask yourself and your teen why negative emotions are leading the process. I strongly believe that a positive mindset leads to powerful and authentic applications.

Ok, I have to be honest. My daughter and I avoided the college application disaster, although I still stumbled with uncertainty, doubt and a couple of setbacks. To avoid the bottleneck of holiday and college planning, our journey started when she was a sophomore, sprinkling college planning here and there by touring and researching colleges. When junior year ended, we started our weekly meetings in August. Our meetings were only 30 minutes a week with three assignments due each week.

Bella: I remember our meetings being low key. They were easy because I only worked on three things every week. I didn’t feel overwhelmed or stressed most of the time. It was pretty cool.

Mom: All eight college applications were completed by Oct. 25, 2018, and we continue to celebrate this extraordinary time in our family’s life, because we created the time for it.

Bella: “Dang, I can’t believe we finished all those applications.”

Mom: ”Yea, I know. See what happens when we work together. It’s like we can do anything.”

Bella: “Oh and what about the financial aid forms?”

Mom: “What?”

Bella: “Yeah, they are due soon.”

Mom: “I’ll get them done. But I’m going out with friends right now, so after I get back. BYE!”

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Sonja Montiel has been working in college admissions for 20 years, and runs College Confidence as an independent college counselor. Her daughter, Bella, is a senior at Tesoro High School in Orange County, California pursuing her goal of becoming a storyteller through writing and acting. Together, going through the college process as mother and teen, they approach this journey with humor, imagination, empathy, and serious planning. Follow their story on Instagram @sonja_montiel

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