Advice for Parents of College-Bound Students

Wednesday, July 06, 2022
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An excerpt from College Admission: How to Get Into Your Dream School--Real Students, Real Stories by James W. Lewis

Any parent’s goal is to launch their children into adulthood as confident, responsible, kind, and happy individuals—the same things that students want for themselves! Heading off to college is a major accomplishment towards that goal.

There are many steps along the way that can help prepare both parents and students for the transition. It’s a process. Some families glide along, no problem. Others struggle with the give and take required as teenagers take on the new responsibilities of the adult world. The following tips are especially designed to help parents turn the controls over to their children, while still being present and supportive in the college application process.

Be supportive. Sometimes parents make mistakes about how much guidance they should give. Gently offer your support. Casually suggest your thoughts. Your kids may not listen to you, they may not understand your point of view, or they may be biased toward other priorities. You may think you know what is best, but ultimately your child will need to own the application process and the decision of where they go to college. Somewhere along that thought process your words may stick with them and have meaning, and subtly influence their decisions. Mandates and musts generally don’t work well with teenagers.

Don’t do the work for them. This is a big one. Even if you think your child is falling behind on deadlines or is missing opportunities, this is his or her milestone to meet, not yours. It’s his or her life to lead, not yours. The sooner you can give up the control you’ve had during your child’s youth and adolescence, the sooner he will take up the reigns. We need to let our kids fail or at least try some things and stumble in order to be the successes that we want them to be.

Help your child identify what his or her dream is. Try to keep your own hopes and dreams for your child to yourself. The following excerpt is all too common:

In the end, I wound up right where I always wanted to be, even if it was entirely different than what I had initially imagined for myself. Throughout the entirety of my college searches and application process, I spent trying to figure out what I needed to look for in a college that best suited my needs and wants. In my ignorance, I was misled by my parents to believe that only prestigious schools were worth my time, and in light of my misgivings, I kept trying to convince myself that whatever my parents wanted was what I wanted, because after all, parents knew best, right?

—Abbigal Maeng, Austin College

If you are too concerned with pushing your kids to follow the path that you want for them, versus letting them figure that out for themselves, at some point they will likely be unhappy with the pursuit. They will realize that this is mom and dad’s dream for me, not my own.

Here is one student’s advice to other students about parental involvement:

Depending on your circumstance, you may find your parents to be overbearing in the college process. It is important to remind them that ultimately, this is your life and that you need to make the decision that is best for you. However, especially if your parents will be contributing to paying for your college, it is a good idea to listen to their advice and try to implement it.

—Arif Harianawala, University of Texas at Austin

Help research schools that align with your child’s goals. Keep in mind as you gather information and visit schools that you and your child should be more concerned about how good of a match a college is for your child than how high its status is. There are a broad range of excellent colleges that offer great educations and the prospect of a successful career. Staying too narrowly focused on a handful of colleges with name recognition and rank is generally not the best or most helpful strategy.

Set the parameters, advises Nancy Beane, former president of NACAC and college counselor. “Parents have one major responsibility in the college search process and that is to set the parameters, whatever they are—financial, philosophical, geographical, or any other factors that are important to you and your family. Set the parameters for your child and then let go; get out of the way. Don’t make the decisions for them. They are the ones going to college, not you.” She adds, “I think the last thing you want to be known as is the helicopter parent or the stealth parent. I think the best way to start a huge fight in your family is to insist that your child go to a certain school. If your child hates it, then it’s your fault.”

Avoid over coaching. Admissions representatives warn that applications from students who are “over coached” can be obvious and can hurt admissions chances. It’s fine to point out a spelling error on an application or suggest that your child spend more time revising a section, but at the end of the day, the work and achievements need to be the student’s. Help your child understand that originality and authenticity are aspects of character that colleges look for and view favorably.

Watch your We’s and You’s. Guidance counselors and college admissions officers tell stories of parents who dominate the conversations meant to be for and led by their children. Let your child ask and answer the questions. And whatever you do, don’t say things like “We are applying to…” or “We need to get that GPA up!” If you hear yourself say the word “we” in relation to something your child is responsible for, STOP yourself. Please.

It’s not a family assignment. No doubt that parents and even siblings will invest some time into supporting a college-bound student. But if the application process starts to feel like a family assignment where you, as a parent, are doing the lion’s share of the work to manage the process, it’s time to take a step (or two) back. Let your child own the process.

Encourage dinner table conversations. Giving your child practice engaging in conversations can help them shine during admissions interviews. Lori Breighner, a global recruitment officer at Duke Kunshan University says, “Preparation for admissions interviews shouldn’t be something families consider only immediately before they are scheduled. The student that performs best in an admissions interview will be one that is comfortable meeting new people and has experience speaking with adults in different settings and on different levels.” She adds, “An admissions interview, at its core, is simply a conversation. Parents can help their students cultivate these all-important ‘people skills’ by initiating meaningful conversations as often as possible. Any discussion—at the dinner table, on the way to soccer practice, even texts back and forth—can serve as an opportunity to model the kind of discussion that a student should able to sustain with their interviewer. By regularly posing open-ended questions, challenging ideas, drawing out opinions, and asking them to expand on key points, parents can help their students learn how not only to impress their interviewer but engage them in thoughtful discourse.”

It’s not a race to the finish line. If your child is slow to get his or her head in the college application game, it’s OK. Try to honor where he or she is and know that not everyone has to follow the same script and strict timeline that the system prescribes. College is too important and too expensive a step to rush into if your child is not ready. Let your child know that a gap semester or year to work, go to community college, or explore other options can be a smart idea.

Encourage a healthy balance of academics, athletics, extracurriculars, and leisure time. Even the most advanced students may be better off pursuing unstructured activities that foster intellectual curiosity and keep the joy in learning. Overloading on AP courses or pushing too hard on the soccer field can lead to burnout and undue stress. In the end, you want your child to find a healthy balance that is manageable and sustainable. Too much pressure from parents can backfire. Yet one single mom whose seven children all received scholarships to attend college advises parents to “keep your children involved in positive activities because if you don’t, someone else will present something negative to fill the void.”

Take comfort in the other students’ stories. Reading the many different kinds of journeys and alternative paths to success can make it easier for your child to imagine and realize his or her own successful journey. Feel good about the journey, no matter what direction it leads.