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7 Ways to (Not) Help Your Teen With College Applications

Photograph by Twenty20

Ah, the first days of November! Our thoughts turn to sweaters, boots and all the things we're thankful for. But if you have a high school senior in your life, it's a different story. November is the month for college applications. Seniors must hit the "submit" button by midnight November 30—then the long wait begins.

My daughter's currently knee-deep in the application process. Having been down this road before with my son, I was feeling pretty confident about my mother-of-a-senior skills. Until I started trying to be helpful. Where did I go wrong? Here are a few things I wouldn't do again.

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1. Don't try to build excitement from junk mail

They try to lure your kid into at least signing up on their website for "exclusive insider benefits."

Somewhere between the freshman and sophomore years they find you—and the recruitment process begins. Colleges you have never even heard of grab your high schooler's name and address and start mailing glossy brochures showing smiling students working on important-looking research projects. They try to lure your kid into at least signing up on their website for "exclusive insider benefits." A poster? Keychain? T-shirt? My kid couldn't have cared less. But I tried to use these mailings as a way to get her excited about college applications. After about the first 87 brochures I stopped saying things like, "Look at this beautiful campus!" or "Isn't the free T-shirt cool?" and we both started making fun of them. Turns out that drawing mustaches on the students in the college brochures is a great stress-reliever—for both of us.

2. Don't share the story of your own college journey

It is so much harder to grab a spot at your top pick than it was back in our day. Students are taking more AP classes, pumping their applications full of extracurriculars and competing for fewer slots each fall. Friends of mine who attended University of California schools 30-some years ago didn't have a tough time getting in at all. I actually wrote a personal letter to the Dean of Students asking for a probationary admission and received a personal response back. But while these blasts from the past might be interesting to you, they only stress your kid out and make her wish she was born 30 years ago. Almost.

3. Don't share cautionary tales from friends

If your hairdresser's neighbor applied to 27 schools and didn't get any acceptance letters, don't share this with your kid. Just don't.

4. Don't try to sell the closest college

While colleges half a continent away sound great in theory, by the time your kid is staring down that final semester of high school you might be worrying about your teen and freaking out that he will be so far from home come fall. But if you really want to encourage him to attend that great school only an hour away from home, it's best not to sell it. This kind of works on that opposite-day theory you used when she was 7 and choosing a shirt. "I love the brown one!" was the best way to get her to choose the blue. So go ahead and share how much you love that school three states away.

5. Don't choose your favorite—and expect it to be hers

When my daughter was a junior we took a weekend trip to visit an uber-cool town with a great college only a few hours' drive from our home. My husband and I both had visions of escaping to this great beach destination for a little relaxation under the guise of "visiting the college kid." And she did love it—but she loved other options too. We might still be crossing our fingers, but you really shouldn't have a "favorite" college for your kid when he's the one who will be living there. Bummer.

6. Don't try to organize all the things

In my constant drive to organize anything I can, I decided she needed a folder with tabs to keep all of the application stuff together and easy to find. Except everything is online now and easily accessible with a password and a link.

7. Don't ask about what the "other kids" are doing

Curious about what your son's friends are doing in terms of college apps? Don't ask—just don't. Nothing good comes from trying to dredge up the added stressor of what colleges/majors/scholarships the other 599 kids in the Class of 2016 are applying for. Your kid doesn't care, should you?

RELATED: 5 College Application Struggles We Know Too Well

My daughter hit the "submit" button on a few schools already, with a few more to go. Meanwhile I'm practicing my uber-calm responses to any subject that's college-related and I've become a master at not giving my opinion if I wasn't asked. And this November I'm thankful not to be a high-school senior.

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