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Patrick O'Connor Headshot

Trouble Applying to College? Here's What's Goin' On

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Since I'm from Detroit, it's only natural for Motown songs to come to mind on big occasions. On my daughter's birthday, "Isn't She Lovely" comes to mind. When a heavy snow closes school, the whole family joins in a chorus of "How Sweet It Is."

And when my students start filling out college applications, it's tough to get "Ball of Confusion" out of my head.

You might think the room should start spinning in September, when every magazine publishes its version of "Colleges So Great, No One Gets Admitted To Them" -- but it's easy to talk parents and students through this message, because they bring their concerns to my office and we talk about them.

The real challenge for a college counselor is how to help students whose first sense of application panic comes on a fall Saturday morning, when they bring a pen or laptop to the breakfast table, throw a last handful of Cocoa Doodles in their mouth, decide it's time to take on that first application -- and they freeze on the line that says "Name."

In other words, they are coming out of the "College is Crazy" hype, and thinking about what they really want out of college for the first time in a long time, or for the first time ever.

I'm sorry I can't be at the breakfast tables of each of my students when there's nowhere to run to (if I could be there, I would tell them to go to their room).

Most students balk at filling out college applications because they view it as the first step towards leaving home. That's easy to see; this is the place where you listen to your music, text message long after your parents have gone to bed, do a little homework, and think about your life. The world outside has changed and challenged you, sometimes in ways you didn't like or didn't completely master -- but at the end of the day, you came home to sort out what it all meant, and looked forward to what came next. Giving this place up won't be easy.

The good news is the colleges that are right for you will feel just like home. It may be in the dorm rooms, it may be at the library (hey, it happens), it may be the whole campus -- but somewhere at those colleges, there is a spot waiting for you to reflect on the challenges of life, wonder about the possible, and text your BFFs til dawn. Once you think about college as your next home, completing the applications will be as easy as taking the written exam for your driver's license, because both are just the paperwork that leads to a greater sense of freedom. In the end, going to college isn't about leaving home -- it's about taking home with you.

The second thing I would do is replace students' earbuds with soundproof headphones. Some students hit the brakes because of outside opinions about their college choices. The application to a college a student loves often heads to the shredder when a well-meaning neighbor asks "Where is that college?", or Uncle Bob reports the college is nowhere to be found in the recently published rankings. If it turns out no other student at the local high school is applying to this college, this can become a trifecta for trauma.

When this happens, I encourage students to make the mature choice and be selfish. By fall, college-bound students know who they are and what they want in a college -- with all the research they've done and the campuses they've visited, if college selection were a term paper, they'd have about 25 sources to quote and 3000 file cards to synthesize by now. Knowing what you know about college and yourself, it's important to keep the well-meaning insights of others in perspective -- some may know you, some may know colleges, but very few (except your parents) will know both as well as you do.

Everyone on your first grade soccer team got a trophy for participating, and choosing colleges works the same way -- with self-knowledge and college knowledge, everyone gets a best college, even if what's best for you is different from what's best for everyone else.

At this time of year, it's easy for seniors to think it's gonna take a miracle to get into college. You've worked too hard to believe in things that you don't understand, instead, remember what home means to you, stay focused on what you've learned about college and yourself, and your college applications will go flying out the door so quickly, you'll realize the miracle is you.

So pick up the pen, and pass the Cocoa Doodles. You can do this.