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How to connect with your teen during the college application process

Here are tips to be helpful without being overbearing as your teen navigates the college application process.


Yes, we all have been there: the dreaded cycle of narrowing down choices from what seems to be an endless sea of colleges and universities. The potential to create stress and anxiety is very real—both for the undergrad-to-be as well as the soon-to-be empty nester parent.

We should acknowledge that this is one of the first formal steps to independence that many teenagers will take, whether it is attending a community college in the next town or a campus across the country. Parents need to be very mindful that its very likely that they are processing the incoming information very differently from their teen.

Let's look at the facts: The brain of a typical high school senior is not yet fully at its adult capacity in a number of very important ways, and will likely take another decade to reach that point. Brain regions involved in organization, judgement, and impulse control—such as the frontal and prefrontal cortex—are still being "wired" to other parts of the brain, such as those involved in emotional and reward behavior.

Importantly the connectivity from one brain region to another completes it maturation from the back to the front, making the frontal lobe areas the last to be fully connected. Meanwhile, the emotional and risk-generating limbic areas are indeed fully online. Peer pressure and impulsive decision making can result from this mismatch.

So you're still wondering why your teen is picking a school based on another friend's decision, or can't "see the forest for the trees" when it comes to academics? It's important to be respectful of their reactions and take some time to walk through how they are basing their choices. It's a great time to give them an adult "frontal lobe assist," and help them list pros and cons of their choices. It can be an  incredible opportunity to collaborate with your teen on how they are approaching these important choices.

Another important area where they may still need some guidance is in planning a calendar on how to complete the application process. It will help them decide how much they can do each week coming up to the deadline. Listening to their ideas for essays, and using your questions to help them draw out more detail on a topic can make you a supportive, but not intrusive, sounding board.  This can also pass the time on the longer college visit car trips that are still to come.

High school is a time of intense learning, and your teenager has been learning at a rate that is much higher than adulthood. During the process of learning new facts, tasks, and skills, brain cells (neurons) make new connections (synapses) in the relevant circuits involved. This process is termed "synaptic plasticity." If you reflect on all that your teenager has accomplished in a relative short time, it's impressive.

As a parent, it is important to let your teenager know that you acknowledge these milestones. Perhaps these relative strengths will help differentiate your young adult and serve as an essay topic, or perhaps the way they dealt with or overcame a weakness may be a great example of their flexibility and adaptation. During their high school years, it's likely you'll find many highly-individualized examples of your teenager's unique identity.

Now it's time to prioritize this effort in the midst of their already packed schedules. Remember that your teenager is at a cognitive stage that has its unique strengths and weaknesses—do not project your adult mindset on them. Teens can process stress and emotion in a more exaggerated way than adults. For this reason, it is important that adults around teens minimize contributing to stress about the college process and serve a supporting role in this new chapter in their lives.

How you go about this process will likely set the stage as to how you can stay connected when they really do leave in a year's time. Reinforce your respectful relationship, role model where possible, help them organize themselves in terms of the what they will use to prioritize their preferences, and their schedule. College applications can at first seem daunting, this next stage can be an exciting celebration of what they have accomplished and what is to come!

Frances E. Jensen, MD, is chair of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, and also author of the New York Times bestseller "The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Teenagers and Young Adults", published by Harper Collins.