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Ready or not? What to do when your teen isn't prepared for college

Jennifer Folsom shares her journey and struggles with her 17-year-old twins. She has realized, " I haven’t failed them if they enroll in community college or a trade school. This is about the next, right step for my older two sons..."
Jennifer Folsom with her sons, left to right, Will (17) Anderson (12) and Josh (17) at Folsom's freshman dorm at  Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland,Virginia.
Jennifer Folsom with her sons, left to right, Will (17) Anderson (12) and Josh (17) at Folsom's freshman dorm at Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland,Virginia. Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

We’re right in the middle of college application season, and as a mom to 17-year-old twins, I feel like I’m drowning.

I know everything with kids is a phase, both good and bad. There was the six-weeks-of-colic phase when the boys were babies, the tantrum-throwing phase when they were toddlers, the taste-of-freedom phase when they were able to play for hours on end with LEGOs by themselves, etc. etc. etc.

So, I know this will pass — eventually.

But right now, it’s the not-ready-for-college phase. My biggest piece of evidence that they’re not ready for a traditional four-year institution? I am the one driving the application process. And the college application train is leaving the station whether I like it or not.

Both boys have an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder diagnosis and see a tutor for organizational support, but the signs have been there since 7th grade that they might not be ready for college. While my husband and I continued to wait for some magical leaps in maturity and self-motivation, less-than-stellar grades kept rolling in.

I read “Grown and Flown” with interest — and then despair — when I came across the authors’ list of nine signs of college readiness. By my own honest assessment, neither child was exhibiting a single sign. Like most boys with ADHD, both run towards risk and struggle with time management and self-advocacy, despite counseling, tutoring and a heck of a lot of parental coaching.

I’ve often thought about what I could do differently. We should have “redshirted” them, the practice of purposely holding back (typically) boys to match their maturity and developmental level to rigid modern school practices. But we didn’t, and we can’t go back in time, and we are once again facing the decision: Send them on to the next level, or not?

And the gamble is big. With an average annual cost of $21,000- $47,000, and only 60 percent of students graduating from a four-year institution in six years, parents are rolling the dice on whether college will yield a positive return on investment. What’s worse, after all of the hand-wringing about applying to, getting in and deciding on the “right” institution, only about two-thirds of freshmen return to their school for sophomore year.

The Folsom Family in Miami, Florida. From left to right: Josh, 17, Will, 17, Jennifer Folsom, Anderson, 12, and Jennifer's husband, Ben.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

So what’s a worried, confused mom supposed to do? I know there are many options aside from college (a gap year, no college, trade school, community college and more) and we’re exploring them. But in seven short months, high school will be over. And I need a plan for my baby birds to flee the nest with their stinky feet and trail of Chewy Bar wrappers.

Here’s what I’ve learned from my own experience, in addition to speaking to several experts:

Remember there are two of them

Parents of multiples, I know you feel my pain here. While my twins are in fact identical and quite similar in personality and behavior, they are two distinct human beings. It doesn’t help my sense of being overwhelmed, or their trajectory, for me to lump them together as one challenge. One might be ready, one might not be. And we will have to deal with that as it comes.

I spoke to Katherine Stievater, founder of Gap Year Solutions and mother of four boys. “Twins? Separate experiences. Every time,” she said. “You want to focus on getting your students from high school to college to adulthood successfully,” added Stievater. “These kids need life skills. To fail. To learn how to have hard conversations on their own. To live on their own. Every student could benefit from a gap year.”

Parallel-path the process

I had no idea how busy fall semester of senior year would be, as both the college applications process and the gap year research and applications process are mostly happening before the holidays. In fact, I sized up the situation and decided to take a few weeks off between jobs, thinking I could use some of the time to focus on this project.

What I’ve learned is that we need to have as many options as possible. We’re aiming for early action (not early decision, that's binding) on a handful of schools as well as applications for several of our gap year program options.

Jennifer Folsom with her twin sons Will and Josh at Randolph-Macon College in October 2019.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

"While many colleges and universities have embraced the concept of gap year, as an industry we're just not there where you can delay the college application process," said Stievater. "Apply to college, apply to gap year programs or create your own plan, and ⁠— when admitted ⁠—request a deferment to enrollment."

Assemble your own board of advisors

You can’t do this alone.

While I largely ran my own college search process, the game has changed significantly in the decades since I was applying. And frankly, my sons are very different students than I was. As I have with many other major life decisions, I have assembled my informal board of advisors to help me guide my sons through this process.

I’ve talked to gap year consultants and the local community college admissions representative. I’ve talked to parents who regretted sending their child when they did, and others who were glad they pushed, and after a rocky start, have seen some success.

Share your concerns with experts and those who have gone through it, and ask for their opinion on your child's readiness, as well as suggestions for a gap year structure to get them ready for college success. “I can gauge a student’s college-readiness almost immediately by how long it takes for him or her to send me their first draft. It’s never about intelligence or writing ability. It’s about executive functioning,” Kim Gallagher, founder of Blue Book Essays, a national college essay coaching firm, told me. “If they’re ghosting me, their ticket to freedom, imagine what they’ll do to their college professor when it’s a choice between a party and a term paper.”

Stay off social media

Oof. This is the hard part. As much as I want to post on Instagram about a having a second-generation Wahoo (inside lingo for a University of Virginia student) that’s just not going to be my kid.

The college admittance process has become a proxy evaluation on modern parenting and it’s hard for me to feel not so good about my own parenting track record when I see smiling faces on Division 1 Commitment Day photos or the Facebook video of a rock star student opening up an email for early action admittance to his or her top-drawer school of choice.

But that? That’s about me, and this process is about my sons. Where and if either goes to college, and how they do when they get there, these are not indications of my parenting ability. I haven’t failed them if they enroll in community college or a trade school. This is about the next ,right step for my older two sons on the path to self-sustaining adulthood. And there are many, many ways to get there.

So I don’t know what next year holds. Maybe I’ll have one serving in AmeriCorp’s National Civilian Conservation Corps (NCCC). And maybe one will be delivering pizzas. One might enroll in his college of choice only to bomb out in a semester, while one might go and get to study what he wants to for the very first time and surprise the hell out of me with stellar grades. But these are their journeys, not ours. And whether they decide to go somewhere together or apart, to college or not, I love them both all the same.

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of client delivery at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm RIVA Solutions Inc. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood,"The Ringmaster," will be out Jan. 7, 2020