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5 Ways Parents Can Be Helpful in the College Search

The college search is a major process for your student, but it’s hard to know when to step in and when to back off. Here’s some helpful advice!

Taking an active role in your teen’s college search is just as important as knowing when to step out of the way. Otherwise, you might find yourself spending a sleepless night cowriting an essay you shouldn’t be or applying for scholarships. Fortunately, there are many ways to support your student through the all-encompassing admission process while ensuring that they—not you—are in control. Here are five steps to help you do just that.

1. Start a team—and empower your team leader

Give your student some comfort by explaining that applying to college doesn’t have to be a one-person job. At the same time, empower them by reminding them that they’re the leader of the team. You and your student are important members of this team, but adding others to the squad will fill in your family’s gaps in knowledge while also ensuring there isn’t an expectation that you’ll have every answer. Some possible teammates include:

  • Their high school’s college counselor
  • Mentors through philanthropic organizations like UStrive
  • College admission consultants (although they usually come at a cost)
  • Admission and financial aid administrators at colleges of interest 

Important to-do for parents: Seek out regional or national organizations that offer admission support for your student; your local library can help you get started.

Important to-do for students: Open lines of communication with the teammates you and your parents identify to assist you.

Related: When Should Parents Step in During the Admission Process?

2. Keep your student on schedule with a calendar

Time management will be a crucial skill for your student once they’re away at college and on their own. Applying to college is a great time to start honing this skill. There are specific deadlines for a variety of tasks that need to be followed during the college admission process, including:

Help your student stay organized by giving them a framework. If they’re a high school junior, for example, you might work with them to fill out a 12-month calendar, marking key dates that occur leading up to the summer before they go to college. Aside from noting deadlines for important events or tasks, you may also create monthly themes to ensure your student puts in the work necessary to stay on track. For instance, “Scholarship September” is a good way to help your student focus on the search for financial aid or preparing to fill out the FAFSA, which becomes available on October 1 each year.

Important to-do for parents: Keep the calendar prominent in your home, and don’t shy away from subtle (or not-so-subtle) reminders of impending due dates.

Important to-do for students: Run the calendar by other members of your team, including your high school counselor, to ensure you’ve accounted for everything.

3. Offer help in preparing for standardized tests

Standardized tests have come under scrutiny in recent years, and many colleges and universities went test-optional due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still it’s very likely that some of the schools your student is eyeing still require SAT scores for admission or scholarships. While exam dates may already be on your team calendar, you should also be aware of when your student needs to register, plus how they can best prepare for exams. Rest assured you don’t have to Google your way to these answers. College Board is home of the SAT, and it has videos, exercises, practice tests, and other resources on its website to help students get ready for the exam, as does the official website for the ACT.

Important to-do for parents: Help your student identify their weaker subject areas so they can improve before testing day. Potentially suggest they seek extra help from their teachers if need be.

Important to-do for students: Try out free resources like Khan Academy before opting for potentially costly tutoring or formal test preparation courses.

Related: How COVID–19 Is Affecting Standardized Tests

4. Start the conversation about college costs

Talking about money is generally (and unnecessarily) taboo, but it doesn’t have to be in your household. Have the conversation about how you’re going to pay for college with your student early and consistently. If you’re like most families and you can’t afford the cost of college out of pocket, explain to your student that this too will be a team effort. Divvy up the work where it makes the most sense. You might teach your student the difference between gift aid and student loans, for example, then leave the grant and scholarship applications up to them. Other roles to play include:

  • A rehearsal partner for scholarship or admission interviews
  • An editor of their application essays
  • A cheerleader as they apply for, and hopefully secure, gift aid

Encouragement may be an especially critical role if your student doesn’t have the best grades. Tell  them why they stand out for a variety of reasons, such as for their extracurricular activities, community service, unique interests, or more basic characteristics like tenacity and kindness. The CollegeXpress Scholarship Search tool can help your student zero in on specific opportunities that might apply to them.

Important to-do for parents: Talk to your teen about the value of state grants, school-based aid, and work-study programs, all of which should be considered before resorting to student loans.

Important to-do for students: Think about other ways you can personally contribute to the cost of college, whether by taking on a part-time job or selling old and unused items.

5. Help establish priorities when choosing a college

If your family has followed a calendar, considered admission requirements like test scores, and scoured for financial aid, a fine-tuned college list may already be rounding itself into shape. Still, ranking schools can be difficult. The CollegeXpress College Search tool can help, but leverage tools like this by first helping your student think through their priorities. Some of the most important factors may include:

  • Availability or acclaim of the program for your student’s preferred major or field of study
  • Graduation rates or other data gleaned from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard
  • Size of campus or student population
  • Proximity to your home or a certain city
  • Amount of financial aid offered

Your student might format their college list to include check boxes for each of the factors they care about most. Ultimately, their college choice is truly their own decision, even if you may be guiding them along the way.

Important to-do for parents: Debate school choice with your student, but also suggest that they talk with other members of the team again to get a well-rounded perspective.

Important to-do for students: It’s easy to lock into one specific college or university, especially one with a prestigious reputation, but try to keep an open mind and see which school is your best overall match.

Related: College Search Spreadsheet Template 

The college search is a major process for your student—but it can also be a great bonding opportunity. It’s valid for you to have concerns and to want to be a part of it, but they should be the one who’s in control, and you should be the support system cheering them on and helping along the way. Use these tips to know when to step in and offer your help, but keep yourself in check so you don’t wind up completing their applications for them.

If your student needs more help filling out and completing their college apps, be sure to share Our Best Advice for Tackling Your College Applications.

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About Callie McGill

Callie McGill is a Content Marketer for


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