Thanksgiving Advice for College Applicants and Their Parents

For college applicants and their families, November can be a tough month. College-bound students feel tremendous pressure to maintain good grades, often in multiple AP courses. At the same time, both applicants and parents frantically struggle to find the most efficient and successful way through the arduous, time-consuming, and confusing college application process.

Applying to college can be a nightmarish process for families.


It doesn’t matter if you live in Morgantown, West Virginia; Alto, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; or Princeton, West Windsor, or Montgomery, New Jersey: November is the month when all college applicants and their parents become tense. And that’s putting it euphemistically.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Most college application stress occurs when students and parents feel out of control. There are dozens of deadlines to manage, complicated financial aid forms to fill out, and letters to request. How is everything going to get done, and get done on time?

As someone who has been guiding college applicants and their families for decades, I first want to assure you, on the eve of this Thanksgiving, that everything will get done on time. Even if your child hasn’t started her or his college application by Thanksgiving Day. Second, I want to assure you that your child’s application can get done in a way that doesn’t interfere with Thanksgiving family harmony. It just takes some pre-planning.

To make sure your child’s application is submitted by the January deadline and that everyone maintains an even temper on Thanksgiving Day, a week before you sit down at the festive table, help your child take the following steps.

 1.  If your child needs to take the SAT or ACT or wants to retake the SAT or ACT but hasn’t yet registered for the December test date, you may still have time to register. Usually, for an extra fee, you can register for the tests past the registration deadline. Contact your child’s counselor, the College Board, or the ACT to find out.

2.  If your child has any incomplete work, encourage your child to talk to the teacher at once about how they can work together to get work done before the winter break. 

3.  If your child has not yet requested letters of recommendation from teachers and transcripts from counselors, encourage your child to do so before Thanksgiving break. Many schools require 3-4 weeks to process requests and many teachers require time to write letters.

4.  Encourage your child to complete her or his common application or coalition application essay before Thanksgiving Day.

Because writing the application essay is by far the most stressful part of the applying to college, this might be the hardest part of managing college application stress while preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. Students have no idea what is expected from them and they’ve had no training writing personal narratives. And frankly, let’s face it: What teenager wants to write a revealing personal reflection to be read and evaluated by strangers? Unfortunately, unless you work as a college admissions counselor, tutor, or officer, you’re probably feeling a little clueless and intimidated as well.

Given the unprecedented competition for college admission, your child needs to take the essay very seriously. No one should imagine even for a second that an applicant can write a slipshod or poorly considered essay and be considered for admission. That’s just not going to happen.

When writing the common application essay or coalition application essay, students and parents need to remember that in college admissions offices, the main college application essay is generally known as “The Deal Breaker.” The college application essay can make or break your child’s chances of admission.

When writing the main college application essay, applicants need to keep in mind that college admissions officers are looking to get sense of who the applicant is as person (“behind the transcript”), but also to evaluate how the applicant stands out from competitors.

In my work with college applicants, I’ve found it’s best to help students realize that while the main college application essay is referred to as personal essay, it’s really a strategic marketing document masquerading as personal narrative, one that is intended to sell the student as better than all the other students with the same academic profile. In other words, to write a pitch perfect essay, students need to identify the general academic group to which they belong and then find a way to use their experience to market themselves as outstanding (as standing out from their competitors). This can be tricky and unfortunately it takes time. Note: If your child needs help strategizing and writing the common application essay or coalition application essay, let me know. I’d be happy to help.

If you’ve already written and submitted your main college essay, all the required supplemental essays, letters of recommendation, transcript, and activities list and/or resume, you’re in good shape. But there’s still work to be done.

1. If your child applied early decision, help your child use the time before Thanksgiving to complete the applications she or he will need to submit if deferred or denied admission in the early decision round. Don’t submit these applications yet (why pay the fee if you don’t have to?) but do have them ready to submit.

2.  Review the list of colleges to which your student applied. Hopefully, your child has applied to some reach, some target, and some safety schools. Encourage your child to be honest: Hoping you will be admitted to Stanford when you don’t have the numbers to even be considered is not going make college admissions officers read your application more favorably. If your child has not applied to at least three target and three safety schools, I strongly encourage you to talk to your child about submitting applications to colleges where she or he has a good chance of getting in and colleges where you can pretty much count on your student being admitted.

3.  If your child does decide to submit more applications, follow up asap with teachers and counselors. Don’t let your child wait till the day before winter break to ask for letters of recommendation. You might also encourage your child to add a few words of thanks to these people for their continued support.

One last piece of advice: Consider making Thanksgiving Day a college application free zone. No questions from relatives about colleges applied to, no questions about how anyone’s progressing through the application process. Just food and family, jokes and memories.

Honest: One day without anyone thinking or talking about college applications is not going to hurt anyone’s admissions chances.

Have questions about how to maximize your Thanksgiving break? Call me!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.