The Role of Parents in the College Application Process

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|September 3, 2020|7 Minutes

My husband and I live on a college campus where he is a professor. Over the years we have spent many entertaining moments watching families of prospective students doing the college visit – teenagers lagging behind pretending they do not know their parents, mothers excited about the grand adventure but fretting about the imminent pain of rejection, fathers equally enthusiastic but wondering if the place really warrants that exorbitant price tag. It ceased to be quite so amusing when we became one of those families ourselves!

College admissions present parents with difficult ethical, social and educational choices. We want our children to enjoy the adventure, act with integrity, feel good about the outcome, and be launched into successful and empowered adulthood under their own steam. Yet, we also witness the avalanche of requirements bearing down on them and we listen to other parents stressing about declining admit rates and soaring college expectations. In the end, many parents feel like they need to choose between allowing their teenagers the space to forge their own way to college or, given the stress and complexities of the process, usurping their child’s ability and right to retain ownership of it. The road to helicopter parenting is, like the one to hell, paved with the best of intentions!

There are no clear or easy answers to managing the application process well as a parent. But here are a few tips towards being appropriately and productively involved in your child’s college application:

  • You are their foremost model for how to deal with the stress, disappointments and joys of this process. It is not necessarily what you say but what you do that will likely have the greatest impact on their behavior and perspective.
  • Help your child develop the tools to evaluate colleges sensibly and thoughtfully – if you cannot move your own thinking beyond superficialities of rank and status, it will be hard for your child to engage constructively with the idea of a good college “fit.” If they don’t understand that what they do at college matters more than the rank of the school they got into, you might spend four more years worrying about the fact that being a mediocre or unhappy student at a highly ranked institution will probably not do for their futures what you had hoped it would! Remind your child – and yourself – that the college application process is only the opening act to the more important drama of succeeding at college.
  • The only thing perhaps more counterproductive these days than a helicoptering parent, is a snowploughing one! To be successful, students need self-motivation, independence and self-reliance in the absence of a parent herding them along. Admission officers always note at information sessions how parents ask all the questions. Resist! Give your child the opportunity – and the responsibility – to ask their own questions, make their own calls, and organize their own calendars.
  • Help set up campus visits, and then work at making these pleasant and instructive experiences for all. This requires that you bite your tongue when they express opinions that are thoughtless or even silly; keep your temper when they announce on arrival that this is not a good place for them; and listen for the subtext when they are having trouble articulating their dreams and anxieties. And remember to enjoy what may be your last extended trip with your teenager!
  • Overcome your reluctance to talk to them about money. College is expensive and there are few moments sadder than when families realize that getting admitted to a dream school is not enough to make the dream come true. This can be avoided if your family talks about what is affordable or beyond your means, and think about how to put the unattainable within reach. The financial aid process is largely in the hands of parents, so be organized about it. Do your taxes early, inform yourselves about requirements, and complete the applications in a timely manner.
  • Step away from that college essay! It is not yours to write, and in forgetting that fact you are not doing your child any favors. Essays written by parents often sound like it – smoothly written, adult in tone, and simply not very interesting. And if you do not model ethical behavior, will your child know that at college submitting another’s work as their own will get them ejected? And, more importantly, how can they have confidence in their own ideas when you show them that you don’t? But if they do ask you for essay ideas or comments, savor their trust in you and be supportive, thoughtful and gently honest.

Above all, help your teenagers develop a healthy perspective on this process by reminding them that your unconditional love does not depend on ivy growing on their colleges’ walls! As parents, we assume they know this. Yet this is a moment most likely to test their confidence and sense of self. But it is also a great opportunity for you to put finishing touches to the job you started 18 years earlier, and to send them off into the world knowing that whatever the outcome of their college application, you value them.