You have no doubt heard of parents who stop working after having a child or reduce their hours at the office to support a teen that is having trouble in high school. In advising about college admissions I sometimes hear about a parent quitting a job to take on the college application process—not so that mom or dad can earn an advanced degree, but so a son or daughter can apply to college. This and other, usually less extreme, forms of parent involvement raise the important questions, “How involved should parents be in college admissions?” and “What can parents do to best support their children in the application process?”
Most parents are very concerned about their child’s experiences when applying to college. But some parents can become overly involved and have a hard time supporting their student through this difficult time. There are some mistakes that can undermine the student’s college admissions process, and they are often committed by the most well-intentioned parents. Here are some important points to keep in mind:
1. Watch those pronouns! “We want to apply to Stanford.” “We just got deferred!” “My daughter’s essay is not turning out the way I planned.” “Our application was submitted last night.” It is surprising how often I hear these statements from parents. It is important to think about the messages you are sending your child when you make these proclamations. College admission is about your child, not you. You can empower your child by letting go and trusting the process. Try checking in at important milestones and let your student take charge of the time in between.
2. Don’t sneak a peak at the college essay without your child’s permission. Most students I work with want to develop their essay fully before offering it up to the parental eye for review (and, yes, criticism). In my experience students who are most wary of their parents reading their essays are worried about the quality of their compositions and want to protect themselves from greater anxiety. This is healthy coping behavior! Let your child have the space she needs. Trust that she will show you her essay when she is ready to do so. Be ready to offer positive, supportive comments and suggestions. It is wise to have a trusted advisor, counselor or teacher offer input as well.
3. Avoid being overbearing and controlling about every aspect of the admissions process. In other words, practice selective meddling! Sit down early in the process with your teen and make up a plan about roles, expectations and priorities. Make a plan you can stick to. One family I worked with set up a regular meeting to discuss college plans on Sunday night after dinner. The student and parents decided what needed to be accomplished over the coming week and who would do what. The rest of the week the “C” word was taboo.
4. Support your child to develop a balanced and realistic list of colleges that provides a good academic fit and fosters personal growth and career path development. For example, parents often treat the Ivy League Schools as though each one offers the same educational opportunity and campus environment. Truthfully, the only thing these schools have in common is their low admit rate. There are over 3,500 colleges in the U.S. and each one has its own unique offerings, strengths, weaknesses, mission and values. It is important to research colleges carefully and choose wisely.
5. Watch for signs that you are adding more stress than support. Applying to college can bring to the surface other family issues. Psychologists report an increased volume of calls from parents seeking counseling during the fall college admissions cycle. It is hard to reconcile every family problem while helping to prepare a teen for his college years. Do your best to stay grounded and focused and help your teen do the same. Issues that arise during the college application cycle can serve as an opportunity to get closer as a family.
What role do you think parents should play in the college admissions process? I welcome your comments and suggestions.
Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and certified college admissions advisor. Her goal is to help students and their families understand the admissions process, research college and career options, create a customized college list and submit a strong and cohesive application. She is familiar with local high schools and has guided three daughters through the college admissions process in addition to more than 300 clients. Dr. LaScala is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, and HECA and earned a certification in College Admissions and Career Planning from University of California at Berkeley. Contact her at (925) 891-4491 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the third in a six-week series of blogs about applying to college by admission advisor Elizabeth LaScala and Teen Wire high school senior Daniel Morizono - showing both sides of the coin, so to speak. Topics will cover everything from pressures to apply early, to parental involvement, to dealing with acceptance, rejection and the hated wait-list option.