tips for parents of college applicants

Applying to College

Applying to and attending college are major milestones, perhaps some of the most important events in your teenager’s life to-date. As their parent, naturally, you are probably wondering how to best help your child through this transition:

  • How do we even begin?
  • What makes a college “good”?
  • Which one is best for my child?
  • What’s a winning essay topic?
  • Who should they ask for the best letters of recommendation?
  • When and how do they actually apply?

The Role of Parents in the Application Process

You may be apprehensive about how your child will handle rejection if they don’t get into their “dream school,” and after those acceptances come in, how they’ll choose the “right” school to spend some of the most formative years of their life. And, if you’re like many parents, you are wondering what your role will be in the process, how to maintain boundaries and, to be honest, how to keep peace in the house. If all this seems daunting and stressful, even a little terrifying, well, take a deep breath and read on.

Learn How the Process Works

No doubt you’ve heard that there are lots of moving parts when it comes to applying to colleges. Together, you and your student should take time to learn about the process. Gather information from your child’s school counselor, college and career director, and other trusted sources. Learn about the different colleges (literally, thousands!) from college guides such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges or the Princeton Review’s Complete Book of Colleges, and review reliable websites such as College Board’s Big Future, the National Center for Educational Statistics, and Attend local college fairs and informational sessions at your child’s school and, if feasible, visit college campuses. If you and your child begin to feel overwhelmed and you’re not sure how to best manage the process, consider hiring an independent educational consultant who can help you and your student map out and execute a customized college search plan.

If Possible, Start Early

Even though your student’s college applications won’t be submitted until senior year of high school, there are things they can do earlier in high school to ensure they’re ready to put their best foot forward: select academically appropriate courses, engage in meaningful extracurricular and summer activities, make strategic decisions about admissions testing and, of course, focus on getting good grades. But if your student hasn’t thought much about college until later in their high school career, that’s okay! It’s definitely not too late to start. Because of tighter deadlines and time constraints, it’ll certainly take more concentrated effort.

Let Your Student Take the Lead

There’s no denying that applying to colleges is challenging, and it’s not easy for any student to navigate their path without support from loving parents and trusted counselors and teachers. While it’s every parent’s desire to help, it’s imperative that you allow your child to be the boss of their search. After all, very soon they’ll be in college, free to make their own decisions about what courses to take, what to major in, what to eat (and drink), who to hang out with, and how to spend their time. Let your student investigate colleges and develop a meaningful list. Allow them to explore their own academic interests. Resist over-editing their essays, even when you think you know a better way to write. Let them set their own timelines and do their own work. Do your best to “bite your tongue” and let your student ask questions of counselors, teachers, and college admissions representatives. Giving your child this responsibility now will provide them with the confidence they need to make wise choices in the future, and seek guidance when they need it.

Tasks for Parents

To be clear, letting your child take the reins doesn’t mean cutting yourself out of the process entirely! Parents can and should have a role to play. If you’re wondering what you can do without infringing in on your child’s independence, consider: arranging travel for college visits, helping brainstorm essay topics (without dictating the topic, or writing essays for them), helping them remain mindful of deadlines, ordering and paying for standardized test registration and submission (if applicable), researching need and merit aid opportunities, and completing financial aid applications. Divvy up and designate responsibilities early on so that you and your child will know in advance who is responsible for what. This gives you a clearly defined platform of involvement, but also allows you to make inquiries about how they’re doing without having to nag. Finally, consider setting aside a weekly “all college” conversation time, perhaps Sunday evenings, so that you and your student can keep up to date on the process. This allows you both to formulate questions and discussion points without letting “college talk” dominate your everyday conversations.

Discuss Restrictions Up-front

Maybe your child has expressed a desire to get away from home and attend college across the country (or the globe). Maybe they have their heart set on a private university with a price tag that’s more than your first home! If you have something different in mind, let them know your boundaries and limitations upfront, certainly before they set their heart on a school that’s too far (or too close) or beyond the family budget. Don’t, however, immediately strike a school of your child’s list simply because of the price tag. While it’s smart to include affordable college options and in-state institutions on your child’s list of schools, even some of the costliest colleges offer substantial financial and merit aid, which can bring expenses down significantly.

Parents, Above All, Listen and Offer Advice

During this time of stress and uncertainty, be your student’s sounding board. Hear what your child is saying about their college likes and dislikes. Ask open ended questions and let them provide the answers. Resist the urge to answer questions for them. Help them come to their own decisions.  Expect that your child may feel uncertain about their decisions, anxious about meeting deadlines, and fearful of rejection from colleges. They will likely revise their plans, aspirations, goals, wants, and needs about colleges during the process. Remind them (and yourself) that the college search is an educational process, and that it is normal to rethink academic goals and change course. Above all, let them know that you have faith in their ability to make the best decisions.

There are a lot of steps to applying to colleges, and parents can and should help their college-bound students while allowing them to blaze their own paths. With your gentle hand, sage advice, encouragement, and patience, you’ll watch as your child successfully navigates the college search and application process, and enrolls in a college they (and you) will love. If you have any questions about the application process, please contact us.