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Ideas for Parents: Supporting Students Through College Admissions

stressed out young woman looking at laptop

For many students, college applications are increasing in both number and the stress associated with them. Parents working with their seniors on the application process frequently absorb some of that anxiety. In its most recent editions, the Fiske Guide to Colleges has even included a “college admissions pledge” for families working on applications. The parents’ part begins: I am resigned to the fact that my child’s college search will end in disaster. I am serene. Deadlines will be missed and scholarships will be lost as my child lounges under pulsating headphones or stares transfixed at an Xbox… I am serene.

While we certainly hope the process will be serene, this depiction cleverly highlights the stresses that parents and their students face working together on such a consequential undertaking. Indeed, as parents face a college admissions landscape vastly different from the one they experienced, trying to help their stressed-out students navigate this process with all of its twists and turns can seem daunting.

This week I had the opportunity to chat with a few parents of recent high school graduates about what they found most helpful when their students were applying to college. First I spoke to Alex*, whose son Tom is a second-year transfer student at a private art and design school in the Northeast. She explained some of their challenges. “For us, what felt the most difficult was helping Tom to figure out where he should apply. He had so many interests. He was looking at schools that were very different in size and student make-up, in very different regions of the country, with very different areas of expertise—and at first they were all possibilities for him—dozens of them!”

To help narrow his focus to the colleges where he would ultimately apply, Tom visited several schools and made a spreadsheet with his parents to track deadlines. This approach proved to be very helpful: “It felt like it was a lot of work for Tom, but not stressful in that Tom stayed ahead of his deadlines and everything went fairly smoothly.”

Tom agreed. “I definitely think the most useful thing my parents did to support me during my college apps was help me figure out the most important information for me to share in my essays and the other questions.” He also said that while grades matter a lot, “it is also important to find a way to stand out in the applicant pool in one’s essays. I largely attribute my application success to the many essay drafts and optimization of the space allowed for personal information. I also think it was really helpful of my parents to be open about the costs and financial aspects of entering college.”

Beckman Auditorium at Caltech. Image by Robert Skolmen at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

For families applying to college this year, Alex suggests, “The best advice I can give is to remind parents that the entire higher ed universe has changed since we were in college. Many schools that were considered ‘meh’ when we went to college are now really competitive in who they let in and in who they hire, and in their standards for teaching and research. The pool of colleges and universities that can offer an amazing education has grown. So don't let your preconceptions about what is a ‘good’ school ruin your senior's excitement about what looks like a great match for him or her.”

Claire, whose son Noah attends a public university in Southern California, suggested that students and parents think carefully about their goals for a smoother process overall. “I know Noah wishes he had received more help. He did most of the college apps on his own. In retrospect, he would have asked for more help from us, his counselor, and a professional counseling service. He would have applied to a few more schools and maybe picked a slightly less competitive major [than bioengineering].”

Finally, I talked to my mom Lizze, who was such a help to me when I applied to college last school year. She had some advice for parents specifically about the time-consuming essay-writing process, which frequently becomes a source of conflict between parents and students.

“Your student’s unique voice is what is going to make their applications stand out from the rest. That voice is best expressed in their choices about what they write and how they write about it. As such, your student’s opinions matter. Let them choose their topics. You may have more experience writing than your student, but you probably don’t know how to better communicate what is meaningful to them than they can. So unless you can clearly see disaster in that first draft, trust your student’s choice, so they can use their beautiful voice to convey what excites them, what their passion is.”

Helping your student through such an important process can feel taxing, but there are so many ways to make senior year easier, more efficient, and ultimately more successful. Please stay tuned for our next blog, where we’ll be sharing our top ten tips for parents to make working with your teenager as productive and low-stress as possible. We wish you luck on this fall’s applications—your student’s hard work and your support will absolutely pay off!

The names of parents and students interviewed for this article have been changed for their privacy.

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