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How to bust the 'big lie' around college applications

College application season can be a grueling time for high schoolers. For parents wanting to help, writer Kelly Corrigan argues they have to start thinking about how they talk about it.
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College application season can be a grueling time for high schoolers. For parents wanting to help, writer Kelly Corrigan argues they have to start thinking about how they talk about it.

Choosing where to go to college is not an easy decision, often because it feels so important. Kids are told that where they go after high school will define how the rest of their life turns out. But writer Kelly Corrigan says that's the big lie society must stop telling.

"The lie is that this is it, that this is a binary moment," said Corrigan, who also hosts the podcast Kelly Corrigan Wonders. "[That] if you get to the University of Stretch Dream Goal, everything will unfold accordingly. And if you don't, you're kind of screwed."

But that's actually not the case, she said.

For starters, Corrigan acknowledges that even thinking about college is a privilege not everyone has. And even for those who are considering it, the financial aspect can be just as stressful as the rest of the application process.

But for those who are applying, this can be a moment of growth, Corrigan argues, and a moment worth celebrating.

The stress of college applications starts long before high school

Corrigan has two kids who are in college now, but before they got there, they went through what she says is "the dumpster fire that is senior fall," while working on their college applications.

The process sends kids through the wringer, making them consider big-picture questions like how the next chapter will be financed, and Corrigan says that forces them to grow. And while parents may want to help, Corrigan argues that they should let their kids take the lead.

Parents do have a role in this process and can help, but to do so they should start thinking about this long before senior fall arrives, Corrigan says, potentially beginning with a decision on how much to talk about college — and even use the word itself when their kids are young.

"I know most parents say the word college way too many times before the fall of their kids' senior year, [and] you can't just take it back with one statement," she said.

If parents have been talking about college and the schools that they went to and where their friends studied, it's nearly impossible for kids not to internalize that to some degree, Corrigan said. And she's speaking from experience.

"I really feel like at some level we blew it, to be totally honest. Because it did come up a lot. It came up too much," she said.

Stepping back and monitoring how much they as parents talk about college can help, Corrigan said. It puts the high schoolers in the driver's seat as they work to navigate what they want.

Deciding what to do after high school requires more questions than 'where do you want to go to college?'

That's an approach that high school counselor Jennifer Kirk agrees with. Kirk works at Upper St. Clair High School just outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., and serves as the board chair for the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association.

Kirk says the thought of post-secondary education – not just a four-year university degree – really begins as early as kindergarten because of how kids are exposed to industries. Teaching at school, medicine at doctor's appointments, and the jobs their parents and parents' friends have are just a few examples.

To break through some of that, she focuses on questions beyond "where do you want to go to college?" and asks about location, the feel of the campus, sports, music and accessibility to a number of other features.

"There has to be heavy self-reflection, because what is wonderful to me is different than your wonderful, is different to my mom or dad's wonderful, is different to my friend's wonderful," Kirk said. "Coaching up a 17 or 18-year-old to have the strength and courage to self-reflect authentically is a big deal."

Parents are invited into these conversations, but the focus is still on the students because "the first major adult thing that they're doing is deciding where they're going to land after high school," Kirk said.

A lot of the stress in this process also stems from students thinking they're going to make the wrong choice, Kirk said. That mentality is a result of society catastrophizing the wrong choice in school, and TV and Hollywood perpetuating unrealistic ideas of what college life is actually like, she said, adding that it's sold as "the best four years of your life."

"It is the next four to six years of your life," Kirk said. "We want them to be great, and then you're going to graduate, ideally, and move into the workforce and live another 50 to 75 years."

And those decades that follow can be great too – and might actually contain the "best years of your life."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wynne Davis is a digital reporter and producer for NPR's All Things Considered.