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Top 10 Tips For Working With Your Child on College Applications

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University of Puget Sound Music Building. Image by Joe Mabel at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported.

Applying to college is a big deal. Parents often wonder what they can do to ease the burden on their students. But with such a time-consuming and emotionally fraught process, working together can present its own challenges. In our last blog post, we spoke to parents of new college students about how they stayed organized during application season. Here we’ve compiled our best advice for parents looking to support and assist their college-bound students.

1. Be systematic

Designate a specific time each week to focus on college. With all the college talk going on at school, it can be very stressful for students to constantly hear about applications at home as well. Capstone’s own Carolyn Weirick recommends choosing a weekly time slot, such as every Sunday afternoon at 4, when parents and students can work together on college applications. Use this time to research schools online, brainstorm your student’s college list, discuss essay and scholarship ideas, and set up a system to monitor deadlines. Every week, create a list of tasks for everyone to accomplish before the next “meeting.” Then agree that for the rest of the week, you won’t talk about anything college-related.

2. Visit colleges

Take your child to see college campuses. Helping them think about and look forward to future opportunities can motivate them to get their applications done. If you can’t travel far to visit colleges, visit local colleges of various sizes and types so your child can start seeing the differences, for instance, between a small liberal arts college and a large public university. These don’t need to be formal college tours, either. Spending just one Saturday wandering around a local campus on your own can make a big difference. Keep it light and fun!

3. Have a plan

Don’t be afraid to dream big, but establish a back-up plan in case your student doesn’t get into their first choice colleges. Also consider that your student’s second-, third-, or fourth-choice college just might be the best fit. In-depth research on colleges will help students identify several potentially great options. If your child gets denied from the school they had their heart set on, acknowledge and validate the sense of loss, while reminding them that their college experience will be whatever they make of it.

4. Remember that a lot has changed

Try to maintain an open mind when looking at colleges and helping your child to build their list. Colleges’ reputations change over time, so don’t dismiss colleges that your child is interested in based only on what you knew about it when you were in school. Also, parents are often surprised at how much more extensive the application process is today: more application essays, longer college lists, and increased competition. Simply being aware that current students deal with unique challenges will help your child feel validated and reassure you that they are probably doing all they can.

5. Focus on finances

Talk about cost with your child early in the application process. If you have budget constraints, plan for financial aid and local scholarship applications. Examine your budget to determine how much you can pay. Then, complete the net price calculator on a college’s financial aid website to estimate what you will be expected to pay. If the estimate is higher than your budget allows, you can remove the college from the list. By focusing on cost up front, you will avoid the heartache of having to turn down an admission offer that your family cannot afford.

6. Stay organized

Help set up an organizational system. Students and parents can work together on a calendar that lists the due dates of all applications. Parents can also help their students make a spreadsheet of all the colleges where they’re planning to apply, listing deadlines and requirements (i.e. extra essays, interviews, artistic portfolios). By creating a collaborative document, you and your student can easily stay on the same page and make sure that nothing is forgotten.

7. Be patient

Believe that everything will work out, and, as admissions officers say, “trust the process.” You may have less control right now than you might wish, but your student is probably capable of more than you know. A student with a well-researched college list is likely to find a good-fit college, so sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is wait it out and trust that things will go well. The calmer you are throughout the process, the calmer your student will probably be as well.

"Let your kid know they are welcome to bring up college applications at any time, but save your own concerns for check-in time. [Keep] in mind that unsolicited advice can be overwhelming advice." -Lizze Slocum, Ava's mom

8. Find ways to help

While your student is busy working on their essays, you can help with the resume and/or activity list. You can give your student a head start by compiling a list of your child’s extracurricular activities, hours spent on them, and any awards garnered. Similarly, if your family has faced external or unusual circumstances, write down a list of pointers for your student to mention in the “Additional Information” section, especially if you know more about these situations than they do.

9. Accept what you can't control

Let go of what can no longer be changed and choose to focus on what you do have control over (like how much sleep you and your child are getting). That way, you'll reduce stress and have more room for fun and relaxation during senior year. After all, there comes a point when SAT scores can't be altered, essays can't be revised any more, and transcripts and activities can't be done over.

10. Enjoy this time

Senior year is a special time and it goes by fast. Remember to enjoy it! Also remember that your child won’t actually go to college for another year. Many parents who see their students procrastinating worry that they might not be ready for college. But your child will continue to mature and grow throughout senior year. And you still have time to spend together as a family. By the time your student arrives at college, they’ll be well prepared for the journey ahead.

The college application process can be a formidable task for students and parents, but having a good working relationship makes a big difference throughout the process. We wish you the best of luck in collaborating this admissions season. With some concentrated effort right now, you’ll have great news in the spring!

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