It used to be that all college admission notifications were delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. You didn't even need to open the letter to know what was inside: If it was a thick package, you had gotten in and the envelope contained a zillion forms to fill out. And if you didn't make the cut, the letter that came was a small envelope sending regrets and wishing you well elsewhere.
Nothing is quite that simple anymore, is it? Many colleges today notify applicants by email. A few still support the post office for old times' sake. And some require that you log onto their site and check your application status at a precise date and time. Just in case the whole application process hasn't been sufficiently stressful, imagine tens of thousands of student applicants hovering over their computers for the moment admission notices are posted.
The role of parents in this "learning the news" process is fraught with land mines. Here are a few things NOT to say to your teenager:
1. "Wow! You got into Harvard! Now we just have to find a way to pay for it."
First, congratulations; acceptance to the top elite schools is quite an accomplishment. Second, just exactly what were you thinking? The how-to-pay-for-it conversation is one you have before you kid applies to schools, not after they've been accepted, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a nationally recognized college expert who blogs at The College Solution.
So just to recap the pickle you now find yourself in: Your child has worked his or her behind off for four years of high school, survived repeated SAT tests and prep classes, played on three varsity teams and practiced piano faithfully for an hour every night of her life since she was seven -- and you? -- you just kind of forgot to save for college?
OK, fair enough; college is expensive and many of us live paycheck to paycheck. But you also forgot to tell him or her they were applying to schools that they could never in a million years attend without taking out hefty loans that will take decades to repay.
This is a cruel message to hear if your kid's heart is set on the elite school. Time to revisit the safety school options, where your child is a more desirable applicant and which more likely offered him or her a financial aid package of grants, not loans.
Lesson learned: Getting your child's hopes up for something that is unlikely to happen isn't smart parenting.
2. "I just don't understand why Ben got into UCLA and you didn't."
College admissions officers work in mysterious ways, for sure. But the larger point here is that parents should not complain in front of their teenager about how unfair their child's college rejections are or denigrate the teenagers they know who did get into these schools. This only builds resentment, says O'Shaughnessy. Instead, she said, parents need to acknowledge their child's pain regarding the rejections, but they should then focus on the positive -- the schools and opportunities that the child enjoys.
Being positive and not trash talking other kids also sets a good role model for your own teenager. Not everyone will get into their dream school, so time to show a little kindness towards others.
3. "I'll miss you so much. I really want you to stay closer to home."
Where your kid goes to college isn't really about having your needs met; this is about your kid and his or her needs. Leaving for college is typically the point at which our baby birds spread their wings. A few may recognize that they aren't quite ready to fly and choose to stay closer to home or attend community college, but many are eager to launch into young adulthood. Your job is to let them, not make them feel guilty about it.
4. "A gap year is crazy. It will put you behind everyone else."
Some kids need a break from the pressure and routine of academics and just want to do something else for awhile. Gap years are common in Europe and growing in popularity in the U.S, according to the American Gap Association.
Think about why you fear a gap year will put your child "behind." Behind in what? There is no race to the finish line of life, is there? If your kid wants to travel or volunteer or work for a year to save some money, why stop him? Real life experience counts for a lot and when he does go to college, he'll be a year older and wiser. Nothing wrong with a more mature freshman who is ready to buckle down and study.
Many colleges will offer your student a deferred enrollment once he is accepted so he won't need to go through the whole application process again.
5. "I'll take money out of my retirement savings so you can attend college."
Generous, but stupid, say most advisers. Some parents think that plundering their retirements accounts to finance their teenager's higher education costs makes sense. This is misguided thinking.
Withdrawing from your retirement savings means diminishing your investments. Tapping into your nest egg early could put your own future at risk. And don't count on just extending your work life with the goal of replenishing the retirement savings you used to pay for college; health issues and layoffs can interfere with the best-laid plans. Remember, they give out student loans but there is no such thing as a retirement loan.
Would you add anything to this list? Let us know in comments.