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When the College Counselor Becomes the Parent

mother and daughter looking at college brochures
Mary Sue Youn

Written by Mary Sue Younon May 12th, 2022

I joined College Coach after working at Barnard College of Columbia University, where I served as the senior associate director of admissions. As the senior manager of the admissions staff, I coordinated all admissions recruitment travel, and directed the application review process. I chaired the admissions committee and personally reviewed many applications from both first-year and transfer admissions applicants. Prior to my tenure at Barnard, I was an admissions counselor at Whittier College and directed the merit scholarship process for the college. My admissions career began as an alumna admissions volunteer for Cornell University while completing my graduate work in psychology at Claremont Graduate University.
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Many of the educators at Bright Horizons College Coach are also parents of high school students. We are excited to share with you some personal insights on college admission and finance as we navigate this process with our own families. by Mary Sue Youn, former admissions officer at Barnard College I’ve heard a version of this line at parent gatherings for years… Oh, you’re a college admissions consultant? Your kids will have it so easy! I’m sure they’ll get in to every place they apply and you won’t be as stressed at all! Umm…not really. After over 25 years of ushering families through the college admission process, to say I was excited about my oldest daughter’s college search would be an understatement. It’s hard not to forecast how she might react after observing the highs and lows of applying to college so many times. What schools will she like? What will she notice that I don’t? How can I help her without overstepping my role? I tried to keep in mind a few parent “best practices” in order to help guide her: Keep an open mind…a really open mind. I’ve witnessed it many, many times. Nothing deflates a fragile teen’s ego more than a parent disparaging a potential college choice that the student really liked. College admission rates now are not the same as they were decades ago. There are many now highly selective universities that were not selective just 20 years ago. Yes, I’ve visited dozens of colleges, and counseled students through researching and applying to hundreds more. But when it came time to find colleges with my own daughter, I kept my opinions to myself until she had a chance to make her own impressions. And guess what? The college she chose was one I knew very little about just a few years ago, but seems to be a great fit for her. Talk about financial fit early on. Like many of you, writing that large check to pay for college isn’t effortless for my family. Look at total cost of attendance for colleges and you’ll quickly face sticker shock. Add in potential need-based aid and/or merit-based scholarships, while considering the family budget, and the true financial cost gets muddier. More than once I’ve seen a student have their heart set on one college that turned out to be unaffordable to the family, and the student was not told until the final decision had to be made. Don’t hide this financial research from your student; include them in this part of the process as well. I get that it can be uncomfortable to talk about the family finances with your teen, but it is far worse to let them think they have a blank check for college expenses if they do not. No school is perfect. As we researched schools, it became crystal clear that no one school would “have it all.” One school seemed to have better residential life, another had a specialized major she was interested in, and a third had a beautiful campus and was a great distance from home. We had started her search by reflecting on her “must haves,” “nice to haves,” and “deal breakers,” and referred back to this list often as looked into each school she was considering. In the end, the school she chose offered the major she wanted, had a nice campus but not the most beautiful we saw, was a good financial fit, but was a little further from home than she originally wanted. She learned what she could compromise on through the process, and that more than one college checked many of the boxes she needed to be successful. Give the family a regularly scheduled college time out. For any high school student, there is a LOT of college chatter from peers, well-meaning family members, and other parents. It’s stressful, and it puts even more pressure on students at a time when they are still figuring stuff out themselves. We made a rule in my household: at least one night a week, there would be no college discussion at the dinner table, and we planned a few outings that were not college-related. I’ll be honest and say the college-free nights were as much for me as they were for her. Senior year flies by, and I’m glad we got some family time in her final year home. Now, one year later, I’m heading out to pick her up from her dorm soon. Freshman year was an adjustment for all of us, but she’s ending the year happy and healthy and at a school that she loves. What more could a parent, or a college counselor, ask for?

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