How Parents Can Help, or Hinder, the College Application Process

father helping student with the college application process

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Parents want to support their children. This is a natural, and commendable, impulse. However, in some circumstances this desire to help will actually work against a child’s success. This is especially the case in the college admissions process, where natural instincts often steer you wrong, and advice and experience often conflict.

So how can you help your students succeed? In this article, we’ll address common ways parents attempt to aid their children, and how those often cause problems. We’ll then show you the best ways to set your child up for success in the college admissions process and let you know how best you can help them.

The Most Common Mistake Parents Make

The most common mistake parents make when trying to help their children is doing the work for them. This is an understandably slippery slope. Parents start out well-intentioned, seeing their child struggling with application materials, and offering advice, editing help or supervising college choices. 

Too often, however, what starts as mere advice or assistance transforms into doing the core of the work. Writing or rewriting essays, filling out applications, or even deciding which colleges to apply to. With your advanced adult perspective and experience, you are able to more clearly and articulately express ideas, and create more polished essays.

The problem, however, is that an essay written by an adult reads as such, free from the prose and promise of writing generated by high school students. College essays, especially the personal statement, are a place to introduce who a student is as a person and bear part of their soul. Writing an essay like this about another person just does not work. Admissions officers can clearly see when a parent has written an essay, and these applications will be rejected summarily.

Deciding which colleges to apply to at all is another touchy subject. While you may be able to advise your child, their dreams are their own, and are often far removed from how you see their future unfolding. This can create tension when deciding which colleges they should apply to, and lead to neither child nor parent being satisfied with where the student is going to college.

Finally, the college application process is ever-changing, and advice that held true when you applied is often no longer relevant, and sometimes is entirely wrong. For example, while colleges did once prize well-rounded students, they now seek specialists, striving to build a well-rounded student body.

The Problem of Pressure

This is the other mistake we commonly see parents making is putting too much pressure on their children. High school is a stressful time already. Hormones are surging, your future is being determined, and there are never enough hours in a day between school, homework, sleep, extracurriculars, friends, jobs, standardized tests, college apps… the list goes on and on.

While it is good to expect great things from your child, the pressure should not be so high that they fear any risk of failure, or lack time enough to get proper sleep. A balance must be struck between expecting a child to be successful and giving them time to be a kid.

Applying to colleges multiplies the already fraught pressures of high school, and parental involvement can either make this much better or much worse for students. 

How You Can Help

Parents can and should set their children up for success, and here are some ways you can do so during the college applications process:

Give Advice

You have lived through more of life, and have more perspective. You don’t know everything, but that’s ok. Give your child advice, but don’t require them to take it. And when they come to you with questions, know that “I don’t know.” is an entirely valid response. Acknowledging the limits of your own knowledge demonstrates maturity, and showing your child how to find answers sets them up well for the future.

Ask Questions

Much of a high school student’s life is determined for them; hours strictly regimented by set schedules, behavior kept in certain bounds, and few real decisions to make. College applications are often the first major decision high school students make. Asking your child questions helps them determine what they want from the process, and how they want to approach it. Here are some good questions to ask when beginning the application process:

  • What do you want out of college?
  • Do you know what you want to study?
  • Are there any extracurriculars you want to keep doing?
  • Do you want to stay in-state, or go afield? (Don’t be offended if they want to travel across the country)
  • What’s your favorite class in high school?
  • What accomplishment are you most proud of?

This is not a complete list of questions of course, but it does give an idea of how to begin approaching these discussions. Remember that the goal is to determine what your child wants, and what will be best for them.

Offer Support

Oftentimes the best thing you can do is offer to support your child in supplemental ways. Listen to them, ask questions without judgment, and don’t give advice unless they seek it (most will eventually). Letting your child know that they are free to express themselves and that you are always in their corner, will give them a much-needed confidence boost when applying.

Get Help

There is no shame in admitting you aren’t an expert in something. That’s why we hire architects to design our offices, or accountants to file our taxes. In the same way, you can hire outside experts to help your child through the admissions process. From drafting a college list to helping your child write the perfect essays, outside experts can guide your child through the process, letting you stand back and just be a parent.

If you want our help with the admissions process, we are more than ready to offer it. At Ivy Scholars, we have a depth of experience guiding students (and parents) through the convoluted twists and demands of the college admissions process and ensuring students find a school that is a great fit for them. Schedule a free consultation to learn how we can help you.

Final Thoughts

This is not a truly exhaustive list of ways parents can help or hinder in the college admissions process but instead seeks to provide some general guidelines for how your help should be structured. Remember, the goal should always be to give your child the tools they need to succeed on their own.

Doing something new for the first time is always scary and stressful, but remember that ultimately your child’s college journey is about them, and their story. You played a major role in that story thus far and helped shape your child into who they are today. But it is still their story to tell.

Need help with college admissions?

Download our "Guide to Everything," a 90-page PDF that covers everything you need to know about the college admission process.

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