As cars fill the driveway and extended family members arrive at the door, the shrewd high school seniors are already plotting their escape. You see, they know what is in store when small talk is unleashed. The holidays are in full swing, and so is the college admission season. In an unfortunate coincidence of timing, family and friends are gathering for celebrations this week at a time when emotions are high for college-bound high school students. In early December, eleventh graders received their scores on the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) and have likely gone into a state of denial or fixation on college admission. Meanwhile, seniors are receiving decisions from early admission schools and trying to process this news, which can be cause for celebration or deeply disappointing. Others are enduring the long wait for decisions in the spring that can feel interminable.
The collision of holiday gatherings and the college admission cycle has the potential to create great angst for the young people you care about, who may be trying to distract themselves from the reality of their futures. Holiday cheer can quickly turn to college fear. Are you hoping to secure your spot as the favorite grandmother or keep your cool uncle image? Or are you going to be "that" relative who makes admission to college the focal point of holiday interactions? By keeping a few tips in mind, you just might arrive at the new year with your reputation (and your family relationships) intact.
Picture this: you are headed to the eggnog bowl for the third time this hour and your niece corners you to ask how your diet is going, adding, “how much you are you weighing now?” Or maybe you are waiting for the ball to drop on New Year's Eve, and instead, your neighbor drops the bomb, asking you if you landed the job at the prestigious firm where you interviewed (you didn’t). Suddenly you are not feeling so festive, right?
It is obviously important to talk with your teenage family member about their life. The trick is to avoid turning it into an interrogation about college. Ask them about their engagement at school and in their community. Ask them what they love and what they do, not how well they do it or about the achievements they have earned. Ask them about their relationships with others, what they are learning and how they are contributing to the common good. If, and only if, they bring up college admission, ask them why they want to go to college, not where they “got in” or want to go. Allow them to reveal what they will. Just as you do not want to be asked about the failed job interview at New Year’s or your weight at the eggnog bowl, they most certainly do not want to be put on the spot about their test scores or college list. Consider asking them what they are excited about for college and tell them about your experiences after high school. In short, take their lead. If they simply want to talk about the latest concert they attended or the new Xbox game they have been playing, enjoy that conversation.
Here’s something else to imagine: you labor all fall on two challenging reports at work. Before you leave for the holidays, your boss returns them to you and lavishes you with praise about how exceptional one reports is, but scarcely mentions the other. Isn’t it obvious how you would feel? All of that work and your pride in that second report suddenly feels undervalued.
It is important to be keenly aware of our reactions to the news that students share about college admission. They are extremely perceptive, and will likely internalize the ways in which their relatives respond to specific colleges or opportunities. When they tell you that they were admitted to Lake Wobegon College for the Exceptionally Gifted maybe you say, “WOW! That is amazing...what an accomplishment!” But then when they reveal that they were also accepted to Soso University, perhaps you simply say, “great news.” Right there, you have shown your cards. Though unlikely intentional, you have implicitly made a value judgment that will not be lost on the young person trying to weigh their options. So, while you don’t need to feign excitement, at the very least be cognizant of the messages you send.
Imagine, yet again: after a long career as a competitive runner you have been sidelined by a stress fracture or you are in limbo as you wait for a doctor’s diagnosis about your ability to keep training. Then you arrive at your family's holiday party and all of your gifts are running related—a subscription to Runner's World, those new shoes you were eyeing, and the latest fitness watch. Are you seeing the pattern? It probably feels like the knife digs deeper with each item you unwrap.
When giving gifts, we know it is the thought that counts, so when considering presents for your college-bound senior, give your choices some extra thought. Unless the student has already been admitted to and enrolled in a specific college, do not give the gift of college swag. When you buy a banner, bumper sticker, or sweatshirt (especially if it is in the parent’s size), from a certain college, you are making a statement. If they have yet to receive a decision from that school, it is even worse and it could end up being a poignant reminder of disappointment.
The holidays are a time for togetherness and gratitude. Show the young people in your life how much you love them by being aware of the pressure and anxiety they may be feeling at this time of transition and uncertainty. Tell them how blessed you feel to be sharing in their journey and be the mindful and supportive family member they need. If you help them come away from the holidays feeling unconditionally accepted, then you have achieved relative success.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project