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College Counseling Blog

College Stress and Communication

Written by Dave Mabe, director of college counseling

I’m a junior varsity dad. My sons are three and one, so my wife, Molly, and I spend our parenting energy on relatively straightforward tasks like potty training and preventing asphyxiation. These things are important — critical, even, for a housebroken life — but they’re not nearly as complex as helping someone through high school while they juggle the college application process.
That is varsity parenting.

So, at the risk of telling the varsity squad how to play, I thought I’d make a few suggestions on how you might communicate with boys as they enter the homestretch of the college search. While this advice is meant mostly for sixth form parents, it might be even more actionable for parents at earlier stages. It never hurts to plan, and establishing some patterns in your communication now will serve you and your son later.

By way of background, every year, we ask sixth formers to look back on their time at Woodberry and rate their stress levels around various aspects of the college process. We know from three years of data that college-related stress reliably peaks for seniors right around Halloween, as Early Decision and Early Action applications come due at a range of institutions. The graph to the right shows college-related stress over time, beginning in the fourth form and ending at graduation.

While it looks precise, the curve is meant to be a broad strokes instrument. It doesn’t show an individual boy’s experience, but rather tracks average college stress for the class. It doesn’t include academic, social, or pandemic-related stress. Keep in mind, also, that November ends the trimester at Woodberry, so the emotions of fall sports and preparation for exams don’t show on the graph.

Put simply, the sixth form year is a whirlwind. Hardest-ever courses, heavy leadership expectations, social pressures, the looming real world. And the college process is perched on top of all of that. Sixth formers want to make their families proud. They want to show you that your investment in them has paid off, and they often worry that their performance in this process — either as they make their plans or collect their decisions — will impact how you feel about them.

At the same time, you’re probably [and understandably] interested in the progress of an application essay or the thinking behind a college list. Plus, your son is away at boarding school! You can’t see him. He needs to update you, but he’s busy, maybe even unreliable about returning your calls and texts. The stress sixth formers feel doesn’t always make them better correspondents.

Knowing all of that, it’s worth thinking through a strategy about how you’ll approach your student at this fraught time.
  • Plan a regular college catch-up. You might ask your son to pick a time each week or every two weeks when he’ll call you to talk just about college. You’ll focus on his agenda first — it’s important to let him drive — and move to your questions and concerns afterward. Try and develop two or three action items; you’ll follow up on those items at your next regular call. In this high stress period, be conscious of your tone and tactics, especially if you’re concerned about his being behind. If your son is overwhelmed or shutting down, focus on simple questions he knows the answers to. Start with accomplishable goals before addressing larger, more intractable problems.
  • Keep college-talk boundaries.* Sixth formers get it from all sides, from well-meaning teachers, coaches, and underformers. Hey, where are you going to college? Students are forced to justify their approach to this process constantly. By all means, talk about college during your regular catch-up, but respect the walls around that conversation. Your other calls and texts should be about classes and home and family and everything else you and your son need to connect about. By quartering off your college talks, contact with you will become a safe place, free of worry about college judgment.
  • One little thing. We talk with students about “showing, not telling” in their college essays. You might think about this advice when it comes to supporting your student. Plan one little thing you might do regularly to show your love for him. It could be something you send him, a favorite snack or other item, that’ll communicate your support at this important time. Telling is still good. But showing can often go overlooked when the chips are down.

Even though I’m just on the JV team, I know that every parent-child relationship is different. The advice above isn’t meant to be prescriptive as much as thought-provoking. You’ll make a plan that fits your family. The most important thing is: understand the stress level of the typical Woodberry sixth former and use that knowledge to plan your contact and support. If college-talk can be limited and student ownership emphasized, you should see a slightly less anxious senior.

Now, get out there and have a good game.

*Except for the week directly before a college deadline. That’s an important week where limiting college contact isn’t reasonable.
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Woodberry Forest admits students of any race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religious belief, and national or ethnic origin to all of the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religious belief, or national or ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic or other school-administered programs. The school is authorized under federal law to enroll nonimmigrant students.