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College Admissions

• 8 Great Ways to Support Your Student (and Stay Sane!) •

As parents who have been through the college admissions process, we’ve witnessed the strange things that happen to perfectly normal people who get swept up in the frenzy. It’s not pretty. But instead of telling you all the things you should not be doing (lest you be labeled a helicopter/snowplow/bulldozer parent), we’re going to focus on how you can positively support your student and stay sane.

1.  Relinquish control. Trust.

Your kid is going to college – not you. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a part to play. As one of our kids said, “Parents are useful.” But you’ll do your best parenting if you encourage your student to take the lead on this one. Applying to college requires a bit of soul searching and can be a really positive, growth experience for teens. If you’re there to support them but are able to take a step back, you’ll be helping them in more ways than you can imagine.

2.  Understand why kids resist.

Lots of parents have asked us why their normally motivated, high achieving kids seem to be avoiding the topic of college. We’ve found that fear is often the reason. Fear of the unknown; fear of not measuring up. At the same time, they’re busy dealing with their high school workload and active social lives. Going to college also may bring up some unsettling subjects – like leaving friends and family behind, and in many cases, moving to a strange new place far away from home.

If your kid’s resistance has you concerned, have an honest conversation with them. Ask them to articulate what they want and what’s holding them back.

3.  Chill out, stay positive, and get informed.

Kids pick up on their parents’ anxiety, so if you are anxious about the admissions process do whatever you can to keep your stress in check. One college freshman told us that her parents were so stressed out during the process, it made her even more anxious than she already was. She wished they could have instead been “a calm, reassuring voice” for her.

Instead of buying in to the sensationalized news about college, get informed by reading books and visiting college websites. Share them with your kids. Two excellent books on the application process from the admissions and counseling perspectives are If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted by Kevin McMullin and Robert Franek (from Collegewise/The Princeton Review) and College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step by Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde. To get more info from inside the admissions office, check out some college blogs such as the ones from Tufts and Tulane.

4.  Encourage and empower your student.

There are many ways to support your student while encouraging them to take ownership of the process. Providing them with resources is one of the best.

Counseling Support Services: Encourage your student to make full use of their high school college counseling center and to forge a strong relationship with their counselor. Many high schools do an excellent job of advising students and are able to take the time to work closely with each student. At large schools, where the caseload for counselors make one-on-one contact and step-by-step guidance challenging, it’s especially important to encourage your student to visit their high school counselor – they can help them plan a strong class schedule, provide information about upcoming college events at school, and will write one of their recommendation letters.

For even more one-on-one support, consider using a private college counselor who will empower your kid to take the reins. They’ve got the expertise and time to help students find colleges that fit, and the skills to help them manage application deadlines and write compelling essays. Many parents find that having their high schoolers work with a private counselor eliminates the ‘parental nag’ factor and makes the selection and application process not only more efficient, but much more enjoyable.

Here are some resources for finding a trusted counselor: IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association), HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association), and Collegewise. 

Bottom line: it’s often helpful to have an objective adult involved – someone other than a parent. Besides, if you know they are in good hands, it’s much easier to take a step back and let your kids do what they need to do.

5.  Find your role.

Talk with your kid about how they would like you to help. One way parents can support their student, without taking over, is to help with organization. With so much going on in high school and kids applying to more than just a few colleges, staying organized is essential for meeting important deadlines. Here are some great organization tips from parents:

  • Have your student create a separate email address just for all things college. Keep it simple –i.e., their name @. Encourage them to keep logins and passwords to various college admissions portals in one place.
  • Create folders for each college your student plans to apply to and put all relevant correspondence, notes and information in that particular folder. When they visit a college or meet an admissions rep at a college fair, staple the business card to the folder and stick the brochures inside.
  • Create a chart, or find one online, to include the following: campus visit dates, admissions reps met (+contact info), interviews, application deadlines (early action/early decision/regular), and a notes section where your student can record their thoughts about each school.

6.  Visit colleges together.

Go with your kid to visit colleges, either locally or, if you can swing it financially, in distant locales. Let them experience what it’s like at a small liberal arts school versus a large public university, for example, so they can start to zero in on colleges that fit them best. College visits are also great motivators – once students get a taste of what college is all about, they usually get excited and invested in the process. Here are a few suggestions for campus visits:

  • Attending more than one or two college info sessions and campus tours in one day may be too ambitious. Leave time to eat and regroup in between college visits!
  • Put on your travel agent hat. Help plan the college visits but remember that your kid is the one who should make the appointments for info sessions, campus tours and interviews, as applicable. Work with your student to map out an itinerary that makes sense.
  • Tag along but say little, if anything. Your kid should be the one to check in at the admissions offices. Keep your impressions to yourself, unless asked. Let your kid have their own responses to the colleges they visit.
  • Encourage your student to take notes at each college – even if they just jot down a few buzzwords that the colleges used and record a few of their own impressions. Trust us, the colleges all start to blur together after you’ve seen more than three schools. They’ll want to remember each school distinctly when they start to narrow their list and begin the application process. 

7.  Get your financial house in order.

Here’s one area where you can step up and take the lead. Educate yourself on tuition, financial aid and scholarship opportunities. It’s never too early to start this process.

  • Don’t assume you won’t be able to afford one type of school over another. Get the facts about tuition prices and how college endowments affect financial aid and merit awards.
  • Consider meeting with a financial aid consultant or financial planner to explore options well in advance of applying.
  • Discuss your family’s financial situation with your student so they can explore colleges that are not only academic and social fits, but also financial fits.

8.  Pick your moments.

While it’s tempting, try to resist peppering your student with questions about college admissions every time you think of something. The executive director of Colleges That Change Lives told a crowd of howling parents this familiar tale: When parents hear the doors lock in the family car, they think “Great, I’ve got a captive audience. I can ask them about their college apps.” Their kids, on the other hand, are thinking “Great, my parents are going to talk to me about college again and there’s nowhere I can run.” The smart alternative? Schedule weekly or bi-weekly meetings, led by your student, to discuss college-related things. To prepare for a productive and stress-free meeting, you and your student can compile your own lists of items to review with each other.


The college admissions process may seem like a complicated maze, and it can be. But this is the time for your student, with your encouragement, to step up and take the lead and for you, as the parent, to take a supporting role. This does not mean conflicts will not arise along the way. They will, particularly when deadlines are looming. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from our own kids’ experiences, it’s this: When we are able to keep our own anxiety in check and ease up on the reins, we usually find that our kids rise to the occasion and surprise us with their independence, resilience and insight… Just the qualities they’ll need to handle all that lies ahead – during these important high school years, at college, and beyond.

Want to know more?

NACAC Guide for Parents in the College Admissions Process

10 Ways for Parents to Stay Sane During the College Application Season (Huffington Post)


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