Teen Overwhelmed with College Decision?

Hello.  My son, a rising senior,  is absolutely disinterested in college application related activities - starting from looking into colleges to making a list, let alone writing essays.  With every passing day as the applications are coming up, he seem more disinterested.  He had been working with a college counselor last few months but he has not been responsive to her either. He is a very smart kid, with excellent school and AP grades; and not putting his 100% towards maximizing his chances for a good college seem bizarre to us.  However, he is not interested in taking our help either with anything or discuss with us or talk through anything with us.  One thing came to my mind is that perhaps he is worried about making this huge decision himself - the first substantial decision he is making. So I was wondering if any of you have experienced a situation like this, and what did you do to help?

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Our daughter, who just finished her first year of college, also had good high school grades and many AP's, but was overwhelmed by the college application sweepstakes. She ended up applying and getting into U Wash, Santa Cruz etc, but decided instead to attend Community college (DVC) this year, which turned out to be a very good experience. The pressure was low, she got her feet wet and confidence up, had mostly good, available, conscientious teachers, and now has a 4.0 GPA.

She had to endure some feelings of inferiority as her friends went off to Ivy Leagues, Cal etc, but she had such a feeling of success that it was worth it. Now she is filling out applications to "TAG" into a UC as a Junior, and is feeling confident and well prepared. This might have been an especially positive experience because of Covid restrictions, but it really was better than we could have imagined. There is an option for your son if he doesn't want all the pressure. Only thing with Community College is to sign up for classes EARLY and ask a lot of questions of the excellent counselors, in order to get the classes with the best teachers/ times etc (there is an app that rates teachers ). The other good option is UC Santa Cruz. Most kids with good grades from NorCal will be accepted there and the application isn't too daunting. My daughter's friends who went there had great experiences. The pressure is too much on these kids, and they risk burnout.  Once they grow up a bit and know more who they are, they are willing to endure more pressure to get what they want, but freshman year is too early for many kids. We were pleasantly surprised and impressed by Community College. It's one of the great things about California. Even just doing freshman year at a CC can let a kid find themselves a bit.

I had a similar problem with my daughter, and after she finally chose and went to college, she was not excited to go an not happy when she was there. As it turns out, this situation was basically my fault. Here's what happened: I told her to choose among any UC or CSU because I thought that was all that would allow for no debt. However, there was no UC or CSU that was small enough, close enough, or accepted her for her intended major. She chose a large, local CSU and did very well grades-wise although was completely miserable and came home in tears every weekend. During her first semester at the CSU she started looking into some private colleges, locally and in the Pacific Northwest, and their costs and programs and class size. She found the type of college she was looking for, transferred, and has been super happy and excited about college ever since, the past 3 years. My advice is, please make sure you are not implicitly or explicitly limiting his options like I did. And go on some college visits as well; if my daughter and I would have toured some local and Oregon/Washington colleges earlier I'm sure she would have been more excited about the process. Good Luck!

What's the rush? He doesn't have to go to 4-year college right from high school. If he doesn't know what he wants to study yet, it's a good idea to wait. He can get a job, and take some community college courses until he figures out what he really wants to study, then he will have a reason to go to college full time. Also, the community college transfer route to UC is great. Transfer is much more straightforward than applying from high school and you save a ton of money. I know for my kid, going through the transfer process helped him be so much more ready to get the most out of being at a large research university once he started as a junior, than I was as at 18 when I just kind of automatically started college after high school because that was expected of me.

I haven't been in this exact situation but I would think about your bottom line. Is it ok with you and  with him if he doesn't go to college next year and stays home? What about a gap year program? What about two years at a community college? If that's not ok what about a CSU or a UC? With those stats he will get into some state schools and the applications are not that hard. Maybe you could suggest/insist he applies to UCs and CSUs (no essays), just do some check boxes for the campuses he likes. You might need to scaffold by helping him as he does them and offer a reward when he completes parts of the task. Another possibility is that he wants to have a summer break and will kick into gear once he's with his peers and everyone is talking about which colleges they are applying to. Remember that teens sense of time is different. While deadlines might seem right around the corner to an adult, to a teen it might seem like there's plenty of time. If it's overwhelming, as you suspect, breaking the task down and reassuring him that he will have good options might help. Visiting colleges that we knew our kid would get into and making the options more visible helped us. Good luck! I bet a year from now he will be about to start college at a great school!

I get it! I also have a rising senior son who is less than excited about the college search/application process. One thing I’ve explored with him is whether he wants to attend a four year college or even go to college right after high school. He assured me that he wants to go and has slowly warmed to making a college list and working on some essays. Could your son feel too much pressure to get into what you consider a “good” college? I suggest starting with a realistic list that HE creates and work from there. Visit some of the schools he’s showing interest in. If he really doesn’t want to go, that’s his decision. My older son completed his first year of college and got an opportunity that led him to defer this coming year. Not my first choice for him but it’s what he wants and I’m happy for him. Best of luck to you and your son. 

I was your kid, decades ago.  My family steered me towards some Ivy League schools, which I applied for, a bit passively, and I only got in where I didn't want to go.

Meanwhile, I'd started imagining a gap year, and applied for a program to live a year on a kibbutz in Israel.  Many of the kids in the program were Jewish and exploring the idea of emigrating to Israel.  My family isn't Jewish, but to me it sounded like an adventure and an opportunity to explore socialism.  My family was worried and tried to talk me out of it, but I went anyway.

It was the best thing I ever did.  As another non-Jewish girl commented, it saved her life.  I learned how to enjoy hard work , picking grapes, peeling onions, and scrubbing floors, and how to become a valued member of a team by working cheerfully.  I learned a lot about the world, and about myself, and I grew.

While I was abroad, I applied again for college and got into Stanford, and later into grad school at UC Berkeley, so I can't say a gap year did my academic life any harm.  in many ways, the transition back the the US was harder than my first weeks in Israel.

I'm not suggesting sending your kid to Israel.  I do suggest that your son's lack of interest in college applications may stem from a need to do some exploring outside the paths you envision for him.  A gap year in a challenging, nonacademic environment away from home may help him find his own direction.  Chances are it won't be much different than what you envision for him, but it will be a direction he chooses.

I think taking a gap year is a great idea for most kids, and it sounds like it is really a good idea for your son!

I used to teach at Santa Clara University, and there were many students who had gone on to college because it was the next step expected of them, but they weren't motivated or interested, and imo, they were wasting their parents' money!

I recommend that you stop paying for the college counselor and tell your son you think he should take a gap year but that if he does want to go right to college you are available to help if he wants that or that you can line up a college counselor if he takes the initiative.

And rest assured, a gap year won't hurt his chances of admission and may even help it! Of course, you will need to set some ground rules re your expectations if he continues living at home during a gap year, but I would wait to do that. 

Also, I found that with my daughter, she went through a lot of changes senior year, so it could be that in 3 months he suddenly gets motivated and is scrambling to do the admissions thing :)

We have a son who is a rising senior and we are having the same issues. He says because he has spent the last 1.5 years inside he feels like a 15 year old still and doesn’t feel ready for college. We are doing three things to help him:

1. We got his college counselor to give him a list of about a dozen colleges she thought he would like, I made a spreadsheet for him summarizing some basic information about them plus about a dozen others people had recommended for him or he had been interested in, and got him to start signing up for online college tours/information sessions.

2. We are giving him more growing up experiences — staying the night at home alone, going out at night with friends to hang out, ordering and picking up dinner for the family, learning to drive a stick, having him get groceries, pay bills, order from Amazon, buy clothes. Basically trying to give him a bunch of adulting skills even if he can’t do everything because of covid.

3. I spend 1-2 hours a day talking to him about college and growing up and assuaging his concerns about whether or not he is ready. It seems like he has a lot of anxiety about it because of the last year and being able to talk regularly is reassuring to him.

Between these things it seems to be making a difference. He is now taking some steps on his own and seems to be looking forward to it more. But while he has the grades and scores and intellect to do well at a highly selective college if he gets in, we have been encouraging him to not focus on such schools and to look at schools where students are happy.

We have suggested he take a gap year but he feels like if he does that he will fall even further behind socially and in growing up so he isn’t currently interested.

Good luck to your son. It’s been such a tough year+ for our kids and it doesn’t seem like this next year is starting out with a bang.

My Son graduated class of 2021 and I can tell you that many kids are in this space! After the 1 year and half of COVID they just weren’t into it. Many have chosen the JuCo route and will apply to 4 year institutions in 2 years. Others like my daughter, class of 2020 chose a GAP Year and headed to JuCo this Fall as well. The mental stress of our students during these last couple years has just been something else for them! Nothing that I had to experience when I was in school. I say have a good chat with him. This is when he really needs to think through what works best for him at this time in his life and help to navigate that with him.

Hi There: I wanted to offer an alternative view. I agree that gap years can be great, and that going straight to college is not for everyone. Also, COVID has complicated this for many kids who feel very disconnected to the whole thing. However, here's my experience: My son would not make lists of colleges. Would not visit colleges or engage in questions. Did well on the SAT but could've done better -- refused to take it a second time. REFUSED to apply to UC's, which nearly gave me a heart attack. Could not have shown less interest. Allowed CSU apps only because they really ask for nothing from the student -- just input your grades and scores and in one case list some activities. Worked on an essay as a high school assignment. Refused a college counselor. Finally, at the last minute, would only engage with me about colleges to apply to via text -- and somehow managed to find half a dozen common app schools he might be interested in (mid-sized, near outdoorsy stuff).  Fast forward -- he got in everywhere (he applied for no 'reach schools'), made a decision quickly and is HAVING THE TIME OF HIS LIFE. He loves his major, his classes, his friends, everything. You really don't always know what's going on in their head. In his case, it turns out he knew his choice and thought all the hoo-ha was silly.  Allow him some room to really consider taking time, doing some applications, and assume he knows himself better than we do. It'll work out no matter what he chooses.