Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: Why is My Teen Suddenly Unmotivated to Apply for College?

“Your teen is likely not motivated about college because what college looks now is up in the air. Will there even be college? Will I go to class with other people or will I be in my dorm by myself going to online school? These are very real concerns, and teens just don’t know what to expect anymore because of the pandemic. Excitement over applying and living the college experience has instead been replaced by fear of the unknown.”

Q: “My daughter, a high school senior, seems to have lost all motivation for college lately. She gets upset and says she’s overwhelmed when asked to do anything relating to college applications. I worry that she’ll miss important deadlines, and what it will mean for her future if she doesn’t apply now. How can I motivate her to stay on track?”


First, know that your teen is not alone. I’ve been hearing from many high school seniors and their parents lately of problems with motivation specifically around college. In all, it’s really tough to stay motivated in these uncertain times.

When thinking about applying to college, your daughter is likely unmotivated due to the way that college appears right now. It’s very much up in the air. What will college look like? Will there be a dorm that I live in? Will I have a roommate? Will I go to class with other people or will I be in my dorm by myself going to online school? These are very real concerns. Teens just don’t know what to expect any more because of the pandemic. Excitement over applying and living the college experience has instead been replaced by fear of the unknown.

Your daughter, as you noted, must be overwhelmed and perhaps defeated by it all – by having to apply to college, the details, and maybe life in general at this point. I’m finding, for example, that a lot of teens are overwhelmed by the amount of time they’re expected to be participating in online school and looking at screens every day. It’s fatiguing both mentally and emotionally. She may be thinking, Why am I doing this? What’s it for? How’s it going to work out?

How to Motivate High School Students: College & Beyond

#1: Outline Goals and Collaborate

Could it be the case that college just isn’t your daughter’s immediate goal? Or perhaps she wants to go to community college first (many teens with ADHD do this to nurture their executive functioning skills) or take a gap year to explore interests. Are you envisioning a private school while she prefers a state school? Either way, make sure you understand where your daughter’s priorities lie to minimize stress and overwhelm, and then work together to create a plan toward her vision. After all, as hard as this might be for you, it is her life. If she’s not excited about it, she likely won’t apply herself.

[Click to Read: Know Your Strong Suits – How to Apply to Colleges]

#2: Organize and Prioritize

If she still expresses interest in heading to college, the daunting aspects of the application process can be minimized if your daughter has a system to adhere to.

Encourage her to spend some time searching for colleges online (many offer virtual tours), and have her single out one or two colleges she’s interested in. Then, work with her to determine how the application process will go and what your role will be in assisting her to get things done on time and turned in. Ask her questions such as: What tools will you need to set up a workable schedule? What will your overall time frame be? How can you set reasonable goals for each week? She may also be able to reach out to someone at her school to help with organization around this in addition to or instead of your assistance.

If your teen is interested in something more vocational, talk to her about what that will look like. Try to track down other teens and young adults who took that path so you and your daughter can talk to them about what their field is like.

#3: Check In, But Keep it to a Minimum

Finally, I would strongly encourage you to create structure for yourself when it comes to checking in on your daughter and the applications process. No one likes to be a nag, but it can be hard to draw the line, especially if you’re already concerned about her progress. Asking too much can also put your daughter under undue pressure and cause unnecessary arguments. Talk explicitly about what types of reminders will feel helpful.

[Read: How to Motivate a Teenager with ADHD]

Pick one day per week, for example, that will be dedicated to college talk. You can also plan to discuss all things college twice daily in 15-minute chunks if that works for your daughter. I know this structure works because not only have I set up this plan with many families but I did it with both of my children when they were applying to colleges. Saturdays at noon were our day to discuss and work on applications.

How to Motivate High School Students: Next Steps

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