Why “We” Aren’t Applying to College

There seems to be a recurring trend amongst parents of students applying to college that is quite unsettling: the use of the collective “we” in conversation about the application journey. This blog is going to break down why it’s important to move away from this language to best support students applying to college.

The Trend

As mentioned previously, I find some of the language surrounding the college application process to be concerning. It is oftentimes parents, but occasionally a counselor, who insert themselves into each step of the process, even pieces they truly had no hand in. This “we” can be sneaky and subtle, but it actually changes the narrative tremendously.

Of course, the final goal of the college application journey is to be admitted to a good fit college where the student will thrive and grow academically, professionally, and socially; and (dare I say it?) be happy. But the true goal of this process is for students (young adults) to hone life skills such as agency, reliability, timeliness, and general executive functioning skills. The entire college application journey is driven by each individual student, because if they can’t engage or steer their own ship through the process, they likely will struggle navigating their time at college (and a parent won’t be there to constantly remind them about homework and doing laundry).

The Importance of Making the Distinction

Parental and counselor use of the word “we” removes the agency and responsibility of the student, and minimizes their growth and self-reliance. “We applied to 12 colleges and we received a score of 1430 on the SAT” is a very different statement than “I studied to earn a score of 1430 on the SAT and researched over 50 schools before landing on the 12 that fit my financial, academic, social, and cultural needs the most.” Meanwhile, there are students who have maybe failed a class, been in trouble at school or in the community, and can’t hold a job for more than a month. I haven’t seen any parents taking ownership of that part of the journey, only the perceived accolades and accomplishments.

The use of the collective “we,” and it’s variations like “our”, remove all the independence and control the student has finally gained as a high school senior. These seniors spent many hours developing essays, crafting the most perfect activities description in a mere 150 characters, and researching the different major and program opportunities that exist in higher education. Meanwhile, in the admission office, they’re lucky if the reader spends more than four minutes on any given application—and that’s including the school report to understand the student’s successes in context, the transcript, the activities list, the essay(s), and the letter(s) of recommendation. Students painstakingly nitpick every word, every comma, only to learn their essay may receive about 60 seconds of undivided attention and an admission decision was likely formulated long before the reader gets to the concluding paragraph.

When parents insert themselves into the narrative, as if they were the ones controlling the application development, it minimizes the efforts put in by their student along with all of their accomplishments. Mom may have paid for those Tae Kwon Do classes, uniforms, and belts, but the child is the one who learned the forms, sparred well in tournaments, and broke those boards during their best tests to advance their expertise. The same goes for the college application process. Parents aren’t going to class daily, studying for exams, taking notes, and completing projects (or, at least, they shouldn’t be), so it’s not appropriate for parents to take credit for college admission offers. It’s incredibly important for developing self-confidence that students feel supported by their parents through this journey, but it’s equally important to award credit where credit is due.

While this may feel like a rant about semantics (it is), as a counselor who has guided hundreds of students through their college application journeys, I know how meaningful it is for students to feel rewarded for the hard work and time dedicated to developing their application narratives.

When “We” is Used Appropriately

While I can’t support the use of “we” in this context, I do strongly believe there is a family/parental component of the college application journey. For example, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the CSS Profile (forms that determine the financial aid a student may be offered at any institution) both require parental income, asset, and tax information, regardless of intention to pay for college for their student. Ultimately, the final decision regarding where to attend requires, at minimum, a family discussion, and is sometimes genuinely a family decision as the decision often impacts other life goals, such as saving for retirement or home improvement projects.

I am an active participant in many forums about paying for college, applying to college, and obtaining scholarships for college. It pains me every time I see a post from a parent, who often means well, saying things like “Here are the acceptances we’ve received” or “We only received $3,000 from ___ University”. Unless the parent is the one who did all the school work to earn that high school GPA, studied and took that SAT or ACT, wrote the essays, and completed all application components for the student (all of which are red flags and serious cause for concern), there can be no “we”. 

Instead, I recommending using language that clearly delineates each participant’s role in this journey:

Before: “We applied to 10 colleges, and we’ve gotten into 3 so far.”

After: “I am so proud that my child applied to 10 colleges, and has already received 3 offers of admission!”

Before: “We’ve been up all night finalizing Jane’s Common App essay.”

After: “I stayed up to keep Jane company as she finalized her Common App essay.”

Before: “We didn’t get into our first-choice college and we’re devastated.”

After: “John didn’t get into his first-choice college and he’s devastated. We’re doing our best to let him know that we are proud of and support him nonetheless.”

And while I find it frustrating to see that collective “we” thrown around and misused so frequently, every now and then a parent posts the most perfect and heartwarming comment. This recent post from a parent in one of these forums stood out to me:

“Watching this college experience unfold for my daughter is super exciting! She’s applied to ten direct admit nursing schools and has heard from 5 and has been accepted to all 5! All with top merit scholarships and some invites to compete for additional top scholarships. We have no idea where she will land but we are so excited for her.”

The Role of a Parent vs. the Role of a Student

I want to reiterate that while the college application journey is a student-driven process, there are some significant ways in which parents, guardians, and counselors can support the student along the way.

Students should:

  • Avoid getting too much input from many outside sources on their essays, because that often causes the essay to lose the student’s voice.
  • Set aside a specific time block each week to discuss college-related developments and progress with parents, so that parents do not feel they need to check in frequently causing the students to feel more overwhelm.
  • Feel confident in the work they produce–authentic applications are what college admission professionals are looking for!

Parents should:

  • Encourage students to take the time they need to eat and sleep, even when it feels like there isn’t time for either.
  • Offer to provide essay feedback once the essay has reached its final stages of development, but acknowledge that the student has the final say in the essay’s content. 
  • Celebrate the student’s successes, and remind them of activities in which they’ve participated that the student forgot to mention in their activities list.
  • Provide hugs, hot chocolate, and maybe an excused absence from school to give the student a few extra hours of sleep or study time for an important exam.
  • Remember that everyone makes mistakes. We’ve made mistakes, parents make mistakes, and students will also make mistakes. There is no singular correct path through life, and failures have the potential to be powerful opportunities for growth rather than longstanding fissures in familial relationships. 

Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors, Jessica Chermak, CEP, provides stress-free, personalized, and professional one-on-one college guidance around the globe from the comfort of a student’s own home.  See her profile with contact information here.

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