Your Role as a Parent in the College Application Process: The Dos and Don’ts

December 2, 2022
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The college application process can feel overwhelming for students and is similarly filled with stress and anxiety for parents. Many parents, understandably, are uncertain about to what extent they should be involved in the process. Supporting your student with a healthy balance of active participation and behind-the-scenes advocacy is the key to helping them successfully manage the college application process. Ultimately, college applications mark the beginning of a pivotal transition to a more independent existence. While you want to do everything you can to help your child achieve their college dreams, you should not be applying to college for them!

Below, we've provided a list of dos and don'ts to follow as you help your students navigate the college application process.

What Parents Should Do

Do be involved in coaching, guiding, and advising while ensuring that your student takes the lead and has ownership of the process.

  • Encourage your student to brainstorm a list of colleges that correspond to their particular interests and majors. Push them to be clear about what draws them to each school.
  • Let your student establish their own ideas before sharing your thoughts. If your child is dragging their feet, do your best to inspire them to take the initiative.

Do insist that your child deal directly with admissions officers.

  • Use the college selection and application process as an opportunity to allow your child to develop their independence through:
    • more advanced decision-making and communication skills
    • confidence in their ability to manage tasks on their own
    • self-reliance
    • independence

Do help your student with more administrative tasks.

  • These tasks include:
    • registering for exams
    • signing up for college mailing lists
    • scheduling campus tours and interviews
    • vigilantly staying on top of application deadlines
  • This will allow your student to focus on the substantive components of a good application, and keep up with their schoolwork.

Do accompany your student on campus visits.

  • Campus tours led by current students give your child the chance to ask questions about social and academic life, while conversations with admissions officers can offer a better sense of the school culture, financial aid, and applicant fit.
  • You and your student should come away with meaningful evaluations that will help you finalize a list of target, safety, and reach

Do be involved in the financial aid process.

  • Stay mindful about your ability to contribute to tuition, and work to ensure that your child is equally mindful of the implications of any student loan debt they may incur.
  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the most important parts of the process requiring parental involvement. FAFSA allows you and your student to qualify for federal aid and loans, and is also used by college financial aid departments to delegate need-based financial aid to accepted students.
  • Since the FAFSA application includes SSN, federal income tax returns, and W-2s, to which your student will likely not have access, your input is imperative to submitting the FAFSA.

Do help your student protect their privacy.

  • Reassure your child that they are not required to share college application-related information with everyone.
  • Exam scores, grades, and application decisions will be different for all students, and can often create uncomfortable feelings of comparison if shared frequently.

Do ensure your student is allocating a respectable amount of time to extracurricular activities.

  • Activities that demonstrate impact and meaningful community engagement will be most important for personal growth, and college admissions.
  • High-level courses and great grades are baselines for potential admission; admissions officers are also looking for active involvement well beyond the classroom.

Do teach your student that ethical standards are essential.

  • You should impress upon your child early on that success must be earned.

Do make every effort to help alleviate the stress of the admission process for your child.

  • The college admissions process should not consume anyone’s life! Help your child stay active, engaged, and curious as a growing teenager.

What Parents Should NOT Do

Do not be a helicopter parent.

  • Avoid being overly involved and essentially taking over the process.

Do not overstep in advising your child.

  • While you can serve as a solid sounding board, your student should make their own decisions about which colleges they want to apply to, and in what subject they may wish to major.

Do not write your student’s essays.

  • The guiding phrase here is “input, not output.” You should absolutely offer constructive advice and detailed feedback but don’t become a co-writer. College admissions officers can tell when writing is a bit too sophisticated to reflect a teenager’s voice. In your effort to help your child, you don’t inadvertently want to hurt them!

Do not exert too much influence over your child and let your own interests become theirs.

  • This is especially important when it comes to the college in which your student chooses to apply or enroll — as difficult as this may be. While you can be helpful in leading your student to certain opportunities and having meaningful and thoughtful conversations about what the “right fit” schools are, be careful about letting your own desires or interests cloud your child’s gut reactions about where they might be happy. Ultimately, your child is the one who will spend four or more years at a school, building the essential skills and relationships to chart their course after graduation and for their future career. They will thrive most if they are in the driver’s seat.

Do not encourage your student to misrepresent themselves.

  • Your child should present the best version of themselves. Exerting pressure to be inauthentic may instill feelings of inadequacy and, later, the potential development of imposter syndrome.

Do not let your child’s college outcomes affect your own self-esteem.

  • It is vital to keep a healthy distance and perspective during the process – even the most successful students are rarely admitted to every school to which they apply. It is important that you and your child understand this and not allow the admissions process to define either of you!

Ultimately, your job as a parent is to be the best parent you can be. When it comes to your role in your child’s college application process, this means striking a healthy balance between serving as your child’s advocate, coach, and caretaker, while encouraging their independence and ownership of the process and, most important, preserving their self-esteem. Do everything you can to protect your student’s mental and physical well-being by helping them minimize stress, maintain a healthy balance of social and extracurricular activities, and prevent deadlines from sneaking up on them. Most of all, being a constant source of support and guidance during this inherently stressful and challenging process is the best way for you to help your future college student successfully navigate the application process, get into a top-choice school, and thrive once they are on campus!