Originally Posted: Mar 8, 2021
Last Updated: Mar 8, 2021
The college admission process can be a very daunting and stressful time for families. College-bound high school seniors have many important decisions to make regarding their future plans. And parents tend to be anxious about their 17- or 18-year-olds leaving the nest for the first time. Additional stress can peak when parents try to find the right ways to help and the potential financial burdens for the future. Throughout my almost 30-year career as a college counselor, I’ve encountered numerous students and families with similar concerns. Here are some helpful tips about what parents should and shouldn’t do to alleviate or normalize some of the stress during the college admission process.
What parents should do
- Stay informed regarding high school academic course selection and be certain your student acquires strong reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills throughout high school. It’s important to encourage (not force) them to take challenging courses and explore their academic potential.
- Learn as much as possible about the latest college admission procedures, and if you have questions for college admission offices, check each college website with your student for answers. If the answer to your questions can’t be found, have your student contact the admission office—don’t do it for them. Your prospective college student will have the opportunity to speak to admission counselors in a professional manner, and it’ll show that they’re independent and engaged in the process.
- Encourage your student to apply to schools that’ll be the best possible academic environment for them to learn and grow. It’s important for your student to choose the schools themselves; they’ll be the one spending the next four years there. An honest discussion about each school after they visit is a good practice for families.
- Be realistic, optimistic, and supportive to your future college student throughout the college search, application, and admission process.
- Let your student ask for their own letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, or others. It’s not appropriate for parents to ask on the student’s behalf.
You can inquire and remind them about upcoming deadlines for applications and scholarships, but let your student be in charge of keeping track of and completing their required tasks.
What parents shouldn’t do
- Don’t write your student’s college essays or complete applications for them. Colleges want to hear from the student in their own voice. It’ll be very obvious to college admission officers if parents write essays or complete applications for their teen.
- Don’t listen to other parents and students who’ve been through the admission process—or at least don’t take their stories as gospel. The process is different for every student, and every student is different in their college preferences. Instead, it’s important to seek help from professional experts regarding the process as you deem necessary.
- Don’t compare your student to other students, be it family or friends, who’ve been through the process and are in college. Again, your student, their needs, and their strengths are unique to them.
- Celebrate your student’s college acceptances but don’t place any undue emphasis on rejections. Families can help college-bound students by listening to and encouraging them every step of the way.
- Don’t stress if your student changes their mind throughout the process. It’s normal for this to happen. Remain calm and allow your student to talk and share their concerns and reasoning. Remind them that they’re not alone. This is a big decision, and it’s okay to have doubts.
Some final advice
If the college admission process is becoming too cumbersome, parents should ask for help from qualified professionals who can alleviate some of the stress. Recently, I was sent a link to “Ethical Parenting in the College Admissions Process” from Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project. I encourage parents and students to carefully read these valuable suggestions about how to maintain a strong moral compass throughout the college admission process—it provides seven guideposts for “ethical, social, and emotional capacities in teens in the college admission process.” Your student is about to embark on a wonderful journey, so the key is to be as supportive as possible but let them take the reins. It’ll only help them become a more capable adult.
For more advice on helping your student through college admission, financial aid, and more, check out our Parents section.