Your Valuable Role in Your Child’s College Application Process

Kathleen Martin, WFS Director of College Guidance
If your child is pursuing higher education, at some point in their high school career you will likely feel compelled to step into, and perhaps even manage, their college application process. But when, how, and to what extent should parents and guardians be involved? What is the right balance to keep the integrity of the process belonging to the child and not the adults? Here are seven ways you can help your high schooler navigate this journey primarily on their own while lending valuable support.
Recognize some of the not-so-obvious stressors for students during the college process. 
Application forms, essays, letters of recommendation, transcripts, test scores…many factors can create anxiety for your child at this time. But sometimes our own behavior as adults can add even more angst to an already stressful process. 

We all have hopes and dreams for our children. We want them to have more than we did in life, we want them to succeed, and achieve. We surround them with love and opportunities, and, unintentionally, subtle pressure. How many of us have bought an adorable college onesie for our child? When we talk, do we mention “good” colleges, or refer to someone who was admitted to Harvard with awe? What subliminal messages are we sending to our children about how we define success? Our behavior establishes a foundation for the stress that students experience in the college process. 

Sometimes we forget that our kids don’t have the same life experiences and perspectives that we do as adults. For many of them, this is one of the first times that they might not succeed. It’s scary to feel that you will be judged by colleges, family, friends, and classmates by your college outcomes. And students often feel like their college choice will shape not only their entire life path, but also people’s impression of their worth. 

Applying to college is a much more complicated process than it was for most parents. Now, students sift through thousands of colleges and hundreds of majors, write dozens of supplemental essays, and apply to increasingly selective colleges. For seniors, these stressors are further increased by conflicted feelings about leaving home, missing friends, becoming independent, and facing impending adulthood in an uncertain world.
Help students rethink and cope with these stressors.
Encourage your student to identify a team of adults, friends, and educators to support them through their college process and to be honest about their feelings and their needs. Many students are reluctant to admit when they are “in the weeds,” overwhelmed by schoolwork, activities, and the college process. 

Tell your child that the average acceptance rate for US colleges is over 70%. Therefore, the odds that they will be admitted to college are high, unless they only focus on the highly selective colleges that admit less than 20% of their applicants. 

Both students and their families should remember that the student is the “it” factor, not the college; a successful college experience is the result of a student fully engaging in their education, identifying mentors, completing internships and research, and exposing themselves to new perspectives. 

Most of all, remind students that it’ll be okay, and empower them to identify the college that is the best fit for them––academically, personally, and socially. For those who want to quantify this advice, check out the lists of where influential, famous, wealthy, and notable people have attended college; those lists reflect a wide range of educational experiences, from community colleges to the Ivy League.
Be a healthy participant in the process (and bring snacks). 
To quote Elsa, “let it go!” Let go of your preconceived notions of the college process, let go of your expectations for your child, let go of what you think is best for your student, and let go of the reins. Your child may not write the essay that you would, may not organize deadlines as you would, and may not have the same college priorities that you do––that tells you that you have raised a young person who is ready to take ownership of their life! 

The college process can often consume families; it is helpful to limit college discussions by asking the student to schedule a weekly 30-minute meeting (when they are not tired, stressed, or busy). The student should set the agenda, updating grownups on their college process and identifying areas where they could use some assistance (scheduling college tours or paying for application fees for example). Adults should listen carefully, offer support––and provide snacks! 

Adults should also take the time to educate themselves on how the college process has changed over the last few decades; many schools that may have been likely for admission now admit a small percentage of applicants. Along the same lines, adults should watch their language when discussing schools; students are very attuned to negative perceptions. Well-intentioned families often offer their writing expertise and editing service to “perfect” their student’s essay. If you do this, you will harm your child! Admissions staff are exceptionally skilled at identifying a 17-year-old voice in the essays; if the essay sounds like a 50-year-old, it will weaken a student’s application. 

Overall, adults should practice listening, supporting, and empowering their adolescent as they take an exciting next step in their lives.
Let your child be in charge of deadlines (but communicate with them if there is concern).
There can be many causes of a student not meeting deadlines; before bringing down the hammer or making threats, adults should try to identify what’s going on with their student. Are they overwhelmed with schoolwork? Intimidated by the college process? In need of support? Not ready for college? 

Having an open, non-judgmental conversation may help adults to identify their student’s needs. If your student is not willing to engage with you, perhaps their college counselor, advisor, or a trusted teacher could offer that support. As an adult, you know your child best. Do they need a schedule? Do they always complete their work last minute? Is this typical or atypical behavior? What is fueling their lack of follow-up? 

While it can be scary for adults, this is part of helping your student transition to adulthood and college; you may need to let them make a mistake or two to learn this lesson. Over-functioning for your student communicates that you don’t have faith in their ability to successfully complete tasks or navigate adulthood. One of my colleagues often says, “the college process is the clearest indication of a student’s readiness for college.”

It is okay, however, to sit down with your child so you both can distinguish between the different types of application deadlines––such as early decision, early action, regular decision, and rolling admission––and what the requirements, dates, and expectations are for each school your child would like to apply to. 
Planning and balance (and again, snacks) can help an overwhelmed student.
With a bit of pre-planning, the college process does not need to be stressful! It is helpful to offer your student the opportunity to visit schools, draft a college essay, and take standardized tests as a junior. For those students who do not have significant summer obligations, much of the college process can be completed before the senior year. 

Developing a reasonable, balanced college list also helps students focus their energies on quality over quantity in their applications. It can be effective to encourage your student to take a break, to enjoy their senior year, and to have some fun. This will allow them to return to their obligations refreshed and renewed. 

Surrounding them with love (and snacks!) is far more effective than nagging and criticism. Pay attention to your student’s cues; perhaps they could benefit from a gap year before attending college? Implement the Golden Rule: how do you like to be supported when you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed?
Financial concerns are real, but knowledge is power.
In addition to the increasing selectivity of college, many families are concerned about the exponential rise in the cost of college––a 130% increase since 1990 (after adjusting for inflation). When it comes to financing your student's college education, knowledge is power! 

Visiting websites like or can help families educate themselves on the types of financial aid available (scholarships, parent and student loans, grants, work study) and the forms required to apply for financial aid (the FAFSA and, for some schools, the CSS Profile). 

Most importantly, families should have honest conversations about their ability to help a student afford college. School counselors and college financial aid officers can provide helpful information about scholarships and financial aid. 
Embrace the journey.
The college journey offers students the opportunity to grow as people, to identify their core values, and to realize who they are as learners, people, and humans. Rather than focusing on prestige or a trophy college, families should embrace the opportunity for self-discovery that is at the heart of college exploration. This journey can be fun; it gives adults the opportunity to learn more about their child and to share road trips to visit colleges and universities! Adults have a choice; you can either cherish your final year of living full-time with your precious child or nag and fuss about college. How do you want to spend your child’s senior year?

Kathleen Martin, Director of College Guidance, has been helping families navigate the college process since 2006. To learn about Wilmington Friends School's college guidance program, check out this podcast episode with Kathleen or click here for information.

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