In The Thick of It: Helping Your Child Get The College Applications In! By Robynne O’Byrne

I still remember the moment my son Sam pressed submit on his first college application. We stared at the screen for a long time before he finally pushed the button. It seemed as if his entire future rested on that one little motion. We both worried about whether or not everything had been filled out properly, whether or not his essays were good enough, were his academic records and recommendations linked to the Common app..… So many worries!

We held our breath as the beach ball spun around and around and after what seemed like an eternity an error message popped up. The credit card number that we used to pay for the submission had been entered incorrectly. Ack!!!  So we went through the entire process again. When the message came up that the application had been submitted successfully we sighed with relief. It got easier and easier to press the submit button over the course of the next few months.

What didn’t seemed to get easier however was the time in between submitting one application and finishing the next one. This was particularly true in October. There was still so much to do – multiple applications to complete, supplemental essays to write, pre-screens to film – but nothing was really due until November at the earliest. So although I felt the urgency for Sam to keep things moving, he seemed to feel he had all the time in the world!

I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to make sure Sam stayed on track. So I nudged, sometimes nagged him to work on his essays or enter information into the next application. I checked and rechecked the application time-line and the spreadsheet containing all the pertinent dates and deadlines. Over and over again I questioned whether I was doing enough, doing too much or doing the wrong things.

Some time in the middle of October I realized I needed to take a step back and figure out what I could do that was truly helpful to him and what was just getting in the way or creating conflict between us. I had hired a team of people to help Sam, as is often necessary for kids applying for the performing arts, and I decided I needed trust that they were guiding him and keeping him on track. His acting and vocal coaches were working with him on the artistic parts of his applications and my partner Harriet was working with him on his essays. I knew it was important that he have an outside person guiding him here because it would be easier for Sam to take critical feedback from Harriet than from me.

Still, I knew he needed my support. So I finally just asked him – how can I be most helpful to you? He told me that hovering over him, nagging him about dates and deadlines, was very irritating. But he also admitted that he was feeling pretty overwhelmed and that he did need and want my help. To my surprise he said the thing that caused him the most stress was worrying about scheduling his auditions, figuring out how to upload his pre-screens, making sure everything was entered into his applications correctly and just keeping track of all materials he had to prepare for auditions. So we figured out a way for us to work together on these things.

I find that my experience with Sam is not unique. At this time of year I get many phone calls and emails from parents of the students I am working with. They ask me if their child is on track, should the essays and applications be getting done more quickly, what more can they be doing as parents? I empathize with their worries and acknowledge that October is a hard month. If this process is a marathon, October is only the 5th mile. Students are still getting the hang of writing their essays and many are still waiting for their school counselors to do their part to link up the Common App with Naviance. Pre-screens are still being filmed, resumes are being revised and head shots being taken. Most performing arts students are also performing in their fall show. So there is a lot on their plate.

I reassure parents that I am tracking their student’s progress and remind them that the application spreadsheet I create for my students has all the pertinent dates, deadlines and application requirements for applying to each school. I encourage parents to refer to it often to keep track of what needs to be done. I also create a monthly timeline for completing each application and I review it weekly with my students. The “to-do” list I send to my students after our sessions gives them a framework for working on applications and helps to limit the sense of overwhelm that can set in. I also I ask my students to send me essay drafts between our sessions so I can make suggestions. This helps students stay engaged in the writing process.  And I promise to send out an alert if a student is falling behind. I remind parents that most applications aren’t due until at least Dec 1st (though certainly a few are due in November) and that there is still plenty of time, so long as the student is actively engaged with me in the process. I tell them we can work together to support their child.

In terms of parental involvement, I encourage parents to speak with their children, ask them what would be the most helpful. Often they will find that it is the more practical or logistical aspects of the process that their child needs help with. Something as simple as filling out the demographic portion of the application can seem confusing and overwhelming to a teenager.

I tell parents it’s ok to take over some of the “administrative” tasks, like filling out the family information section of an application. I encourage them to think of themselves as the Administrative Assistant, helping to get the ancillary tasks done so that the student and I can focus on the essays and the artistic aspects of the application. Most students are happy to have their parents help out with these sort of tasks and many feel relieved to know that they don’t have to manage them on their own. The process itself is so complex, with so many steps, that most students simply cannot manage it without a great deal of support. I encourage parents to review each application before it is submitted just to catch any discrepancies.

For the most part I find this approach works very well. As long as no one on the “team” is working harder than the student, things have a way of getting done on time. Essays get written, applications get completed and auditions get scheduled. In the few instances in which a student is truly resistant to participating in the process, I remind parents that when students are not able or willing to put in the time to apply to college, then they are probably not ready to handle to responsibilities of being in college.
Fortunately for those of us who have children interested in applying to performing arts programs, their passion for their craft is a great motivator. I find that most of my students enjoy sharing their love  of music, theatre or dance through their essays and auditions.Yes, the process can be demanding and stressful, but it can also be a celebration of all the years of hard work and preparation. Although the next few months might seem interminably long, the end of the process will bring big rewards. In my experience there is a place for every student and every student will find their place. When they do, you will share in their joy, knowing you played a pivotal role in helping them get there!

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