After a year that has tried us all in ways we never imagined, many of our teens are lonely, stressed, and confused. As the adults in their lives, we hope to offer them tools and insights that might ease the burdens they face, including the uncertainties and challenges of applying to college amid a pandemic.
Today’s shifting landscape includes changes to admission requirements and, in many cases, reduced family incomes. Students are also unable to explore their college options in ways they might have in the past.
Here are a few ways that counselors and parents can offer perspective and solace, thus easing student stress.
Offer empathy. “More than anything young people deserve our empathy, our unqualified empathy, as they are having to adapt to an incredibly difficult, disruptive year that involves the loss of opportunities they will never have again,” explained Dr. Lisa Damour, clinical psychologist at the Laurel School (OH), co-host of the popular Ask Lisa podcast, and author of two bestselling books on teens and the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times. “They deserve our empathy because, more than other age group, they are enduring an event of historic proportions that particularly undermines what they should be doing at this point in their lives.”
Remind students that everyone applying to college has experienced setbacks. It is easy to feel like the pandemic happened to you. Tests, in-person classes, grades, and activities have been modified or canceled all over the county. While no two situations are exactly the same, and some students have been in more advantaged positions, we can emphasize for students that admission officers are acutely aware their application may not have all the accomplishments they had hoped to highlight. Colleges are highly cognizant of the fact that some family incomes have been disrupted and many are looking to support students where they can.
Yes, it is challenging to select a college or put together a list without leaving your bedroom. Driving around an empty campus feels, well, empty. But out of this limitation has come opportunity.
Urge teens to focus on what they can control. Jeff Selingo, author of Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, reminds high school students to “control what you can control.” We can reinforce for students that colleges are looking for ways students met this year-long challenge. They are seeking industrious, resilient students who care about those around them, and this is and has always been within a student’s control.
Help students look ahead to the growth and strength this year will bestow on them. “Our teens are going to come out of this year tougher than they went into it, in a good way,” Damour explained. “What we know as psychologists is that when people are able to weather difficult circumstances, they are more resilient in the face of new difficulties. As disruptive as the pandemic has been to the lives of young people we should fully presume that we are sending off to college a generation that will be better at dealing with the inevitable disappointments that will come their way.
“The silver lining we can convey to our teens is that this year will reset their yardsticks for what constitutes a crisis,” Damour argued. “Without the pandemic, when you got to college and you had a teacher you didn’t like, a course you didn’t like, or a hassle with technology, that might have felt like a crisis. After the pandemic that will feel like merely a hassle. You will enjoy a reduction in your overall level of distress as a result of having to endure the historical and protracted challenge of living through a pandemic. And you get to keep that for the rest of your life.”
Refocus students on self-care. Online school has made it easy for students to veer away from the basic self-care that allows them to withstand stress like regular exercise, healthy eating, and predictable sleeping hours. Remind students that caring for their body helps them weather any stressful situation.
Help them to reframe opportunities. Yes, it is challenging to select a college or put together a list without leaving your bedroom. Driving around an empty campus feels, well, empty. But out of this limitation has come opportunity. Colleges have made more information than ever available to students online via live sessions, Q&A’s, and access to department-level information. NACAC created a series of online college fairs open to everyone. Admission officers who could only visit a limited number of high schools in past years are now online and available to many more students.
As Damour noted, pre-pandemic the colleges expected students to come to them and, maybe, if you were fortunate, they sent admission officers to your high school. During the pandemic colleges have had to figure out how to bring information to the students. Students should take full advantage of the fact that colleges and their admission staff are far more accessible than they have ever been before.
Lisa Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown and the co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults.
Grown & Flown is a one-stop resource for parenting teenagers, leading up to—and through—high school and those first years of independence. It covers everything from the monumental to the mundane. Organized by topic—such as family life, high school academics, happiness and mental health, college admission and college life—it features a combination of stories, advice from professionals, and practical sidebars.
This year, NACAC is collaborating with Grown & Flown to provide information and resources about college admission and the college search to their large and engaged audience of parents of teens and young adults.