Remembering Mental Health in College Admission

As we turn the calendar on another admission cycle, students, parents, school counselors, and college admissions professionals will focus on application deadlines, essays, senior-year grades, whether or not students should submit testing, and identify ways to best stand out. If those things are not enough, let’s not forget about the recent Supreme Court decision on race-conscious admission. Yes, while all of these topics are central to college admission, there is one that needs to be discussed and addressed: prioritizing mental health.

Last month, on our podcast Application to Admission, we interviewed Bianca Busch, MD also known as the “College Psychiatrist.” As a Board Certified Psychiatrist specializing in college-age young people, One of her mantras is that “we as parents must learn to compromise with our teens. Rarely will a student get everything they want, just as a parent will not get everything they want. The goal for a parent must be to partner with their student and have open communication, with an understanding that the student’s social and emotional wellbeing is most important.”

While Dr. Busch, in her conversation with us, talked about how parents and students need to partner, I want secondary school counselors and colleges and universities to consider the role they play in adolescents’ emotional and mental well-being. As educators, we should try to minimize the pressure and anxieties that come with applying to college and help students redefine success.

What does redefining success mean? It means amplifying the message that students can receive an excellent education and enjoy and grow at several schools nationwide. It means not allowing antique methodologies (rankings) to suggest that one school is “better” than another.

Expanding college lists to include more schools that might not be as familiar is necessary. This will give students more choices and diffuse some of the pressure associated with applying to college.

One of the biggest reasons for stress and anxiety in this process is misinformation and comparing your student’s situation to anyone else, especially since things are rapidly changing. College admissions decisions made two years ago are different from what is happening now. Thus, if you listen to people outside of the profession telling you what to do, you will only be setting the foundation of your college search process on quicksand, which will only cause chaos. Also, please don’t do this on your own! Please seek out the assistance of professionals.

Talking about the college admission process can overwhelm students and parents. Thus, it’s essential to avoid making this an everyday conversation. A college admission veteran of over 20 years told the story about when it came time for his son to go through the process. He brought the subject up daily, which made the process more stressful, and his son told him as much. They then decided to only talk about college applications once a week. The process went a lot better once they set a weekly time to discuss timelines, schools, and other items. The teenage self-development-almost-empty-nester years can be stressful enough without ever saying a word, so please build some parameters within your home to alleviate angst. Also, be mindful that your job as a parent is to support them in the process and validate and support students’ feelings as much as possible.

Finally, parents, you all must talk about money early and often. There are far too many instances where there needs to be more discussion about the cost of college. If your child is aiming for a “dream school” and you have concerns about how you will afford it, you’re setting yourself up for even more stress. We have seen students get admitted into their dream school(s), and it is not until then that parents must have a hard conversation about what they can and cannot afford. Too often, college is the only financial decision parents leave in students’ hands. In no other place would we allow a teenager to make a decision that could potentially cost $300,000. Waiting until senior year is not fair to the student or your family. There is no way you can begin the college process without talking about money and having that be one of the guiding factors in the college search process. Remember: cost, location, major and career.

In The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions: A Conversation about Education, Parenting, and Race in the chapter Show Me the Money we provide a high-level overview of the aid process. Still, long before you ever complete any aid documents, there must be active communication about resources so that students understand any limitations. This conversation between students and parents about finances is an important developmental milestone and a soft launch to foster greater independence.

Prioritizing mental health in college admission has to be a shared responsibility of students, parents, and secondary and post-secondary schools in which we have to take responsibility. While each entity will play a role in this process, it’s paramount that students’ overall emotional health is central. This year will be like no other we have experienced in recent history. Still, we truly believe that collectively, we can support each other and limit some of the pressure that has overtaken what should be a great time in students’ lives.

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