The Do’s and Don’ts of Parenting a College Applicant

By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling

How did this happen? Your child is suddenly grown up and ready to start thinking about colleges. Wasn’t it just yesterday that they were starting kindergarten? Now they’re ready to apply to college? They may be talking to you non-stop about how excited they are to visit different campuses in their junior year, how nervous they are for their ACT and AP exams, and how ready they are to leave high school behind. Or, they may be conspicuously quiet about it all, even refusing to talk about it, and you sense the anxiety levels creeping up. You know how stressful the college application process can be–on both parents and kids–and so much has changed since you went through it yourself all those years ago. Though you’re excited that your child is ready to take these first steps into adulthood, you’re also hesitant and scared about what’s in store. What if they don’t get into the school of their dreams? What if they decide they want to attend college across the country–or even a different country?! What if they want to take a gap year before starting a traditional four-year education? What if they don’t even know whether or not college is right for them? In any parenting situation like this, it’s important to think hard about what’s at stake, what’s best for your child and family, and how to most effectively approach the college application process. Remember: as much as they may talk about leaving, they still look to you for guidance, reassurance, love, and validation. They might not act like they care what you think, but trust me, they want to make you proud. Here are some important Do’s and Don’ts every parent should keep in mind:

DO listen to your student

There is nothing more important than making sure to genuinely listen to your child when they talk about their future plans. Do they want to go to a liberal arts college or a specialized school, like an art conservatory or engineering school? What about taking a gap year after high school? Is her head spinning because they don’t yet know what they want? Listen closely, and understand that your child’s perspective and goals will shift over the course of their college admissions process. Most importantly, your child needs to know that you’re on their side. You’ve been their biggest cheerleader since they were born, so give them time and attention when they want to talk about the future. Though you are certainly still the authority figure here, be sure not to shoot down their ideas–even if they seem a touch impractical or don’t fit the vision that you’ve always had for them. Remember they are just as anxious about the future as you are, and they don’t have the life experience you do. It’s important that you listen with an open mind and be slow to judge their plans as good or bad. There is a lot of pressure on students today to rush into things before they’re ready. As a parent, be mindful of your child’s emotional state as much as their stated needs and wants. Make it known that you’re all ears, that you’re an ally, and your child will likely be willing to turn to you when they have questions about this major life decision.

DON’T run the process

“We’re going to college!” Um, “we”? As parents, it can be easy to get into helicopter mode–researching schools on your own, talking to guidance counselors on your child’s behalf, creating checklists for your child to follow, compiling names of colleges to which they should apply and people they should ask for recommendations. However, it’s important to take a step back. Though this may seem like a “we” moment, it is first and foremost your child’s experience. The last thing they want is to feel as if their parents are hijacking their decisions. Your opinions and concerns matter, and as a parent you certainly must retain some control, but this is a real opportunity to empower your child. And doing so will surely result in a much more successful college application process, one in which your child matures, learns about themself, and takes at least partial control of their life. As with so much of this process, the key here is balance. Provide your input and make it clear that this is not your child’s decision alone, but be sure to allow them to take ownership. Be extra sensitive to your child’s emotions during this time. Remember that, as much as you hear college chatter among your friends, your child hears it more and from all sides: teachers, admissions offices, friends, and you. Try hard not to be overbearing, watch for signs of stress, and be careful not to make college the only topic of conversation at the dinner table. As much as you need to stay on top of things, also know when to let them lie. Key tip: Minimize reports about where so-and-so is applying, and who got in where.

With regards to the college application process itself, again make sure that your child is keeping track of their own progress. Don’t inundate them with unsolicited advice, and certainly resist the urge to take control (even when it seems like they’re not doing things the way you would). Your student needs to learn about meeting deadlines and setting goals on their own, and keeping track of application and scholarship deadlines can be a great way for them to gain that important life experience. Of course, if you see your student struggling, if things are getting too stressful in the home, or if you realize they could just use some extra assistance, consider getting help. (See our blog on the benefits of a private college counselor.) Either way, keep things in perspective for you and your child. Your job is to parent the applicant, not to be the applicant.

DO offer offer some constructive feedback on college essays and applications

Even if your child is fiercely independent and self-motivated and passed their English classes with flying colors, it’s a good idea to read over resumes, essays and other components of the college application. Everyone benefits from a read-through, and having extra sets of eyes to read everything over before submission can mitigate lurking grammatical and structural issues. You know your child better than anyone, and helping them to make sure their essays and applications reflect their best self is something a parent is especially equipped to do. If your child does not feel comfortable letting you read their essays, ask if there are other trusted adults that they could ask for feedback, such as a teacher or mentor. You’re right to want your student to shine on their college applications. Just remember that this is a stressful time, and some parts of their application may be deeply personal. Ease into it.

DON’T overstep with your child’s college essays

Your child’s essays MUST be 100% their own. It is not only unethical for a parent or other adult to write for a student, but it does a real disservice to your child overall–both in terms of their self-worth and in the college application process itself. As mentioned, college essays are personal narratives. If your student is struggling to come up with ideas for their essays, ask them to take some time away from the computer and take a walk, read a book, or even speak to an expert about brainstorming exercises. You may think that some of your student’s phrasing is a little awkward, but refrain from changing it yourself. Instead, let them know that the wording is a bit off and that they might consider changing it to flow better. If there are glaring grammar or spelling issues, let them know about those issues, but don’t change them yourself.
Whatever you do, make sure that your child’s writing ability and voice shine through in their essays. Colleges ask personal questions because they really want to learn about each applicant, understand their values, and get a glimpse of their underlying character. If you’re altering your child’s words, then the colleges will only be able to hear your voice and not theirs. I can assure you from decades of experience that college admissions officers can tell! They know when an essay has been overly polished, and this can do enormous damage to an applicant’s prospects.

DO encourage your student to do independent research about colleges

Attending college can be a big part of your child’s progress towards full independence–and taking responsibility for becoming informed can be an enormously rewarding first step in that progress. Encourage your student to take initiative and look into colleges and universities for themself. They will learn a ton, realize things about themself, and feel ownership over their college admissions process. So, do offer help by letting your student know about available resources, but let them do the work. They’ll feel more secure in their decisions, and those decisions will be more informed. Taking ownership over the college admissions process in this way will also prepare your child for future life decisions.

DON’T pressure your student to apply to a fixed set of colleges

Not ready for your student to leave the nest, so you keep hinting about the great college thirty minutes down the road? Have a strong love for your own alma mater? Always pictured your child at a small liberal arts college? A “rah-rah” school? An Ivy League university? Remember the rule above about “we.” Pressuring your child to go to a school of your choice is just that: pressure. They already have enough on their plate, so be cognizant of that when you’re suggesting schools for their shortlist. And, whereas you certainly want to encourage aspiration, pushing them to apply to schools that are beyond their reach is setting them up for failure. Not all schools are solid matches for all students, academically and/or socially. Students should be applying to schools that give them the tools they need to succeed, regardless of whatever US News and World Report says. The “right” schools are those that are right for your child.

DO be honest with your student about what you can afford

This is a big one. College is a great financial undertaking. With the U.S. student debt at $1.75 trillion, it is important to have a transparent financial discussion with your child. You may not want or need to provide every detail, but talk to your child about financial responsibility and the benefits and consequences of taking out student loans. Even if your student receives some scholarships or financial aid, chances are that it might not cover the full cost of four years. If you have college savings plans such as a 529, let your student know how much you’ve saved over the years and, based on the colleges they want to attend, how far that money will go. Some families who can afford the full price of college opt to have their child take some loans to foster financial responsibility and ownership of his or their education. For many families, however, the rising cost of college over the past twenty years has not been matched by equivalent college savings or wage growth. This can be a delicate issue, so be careful to balance honesty with a desire not to scare or stress out your child. But do be frank, and understand that this too is part of your child’s development and transition into adulthood.

Parenting is hard! And parenting teens immersed in the college application process is even more complicated. But, again, as much as they might try not to show it, your child still looks to you for help, guidance, reassurance–and, most of all, love. They want to know you’re in their corner, cheering them on, but also that you have confidence that they can handle the process, take responsibility for it, and succeed independently. Your job is the trickiest of all: impart wisdom, but don’t do too much; transfer control, but minimize stress; empower, but advise; let go, but support (or reassure). There is no simple formula here. Just do what you can to be the source of stability and reason, and always keep your eyes on the real prize: not prestige and bragging-rights, but a happy, confident, and well-grounded child who is ready to attend a college where they will thrive.