Surviving Admissions Season: Tips for Parents

Remember when you applied to college? You probably know it’s completely different now. There are online applications, video essays and Skyped college interviews. And, if you are like me, it’s likely you would not gain admission to your alma mater if you applied today. Schools once considered “safety schools” are now turning away more students than they are admitting.

It is no secret that admission season can be stressful for high school seniors, but it can also take its toll on parents. Finding a balance between being supportive, but not overly involved, is easier said than done. So, how do you know when to step in and when to take a backseat?

After several years in college admissions at a private university in New England, I’ve seen the spectrum of parent involvement – the good, the bad and the ugly. Here are some observations on how best to support your teen through the college search and application process.

Encourage your teen to be open-minded about college options.

There’s no shortage of information regarding college admissions. The annual U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Colleges” issue is the most popular each year, selling double that of an average issue. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, and most students know of a tiny fraction of them. Encourage your child to expand their search beyond well-known or regional institutions. Rather than focusing on prestige and rankings, consider each school in the context of “fit” – would they thrive academically and socially? Students will get out of college what they put in – if they feel engaged with the community, they will be more likely to thrive in the classroom.

Visit college campuses, but try to take a backseat.

Visiting a college campus is the best way to feel out a school. If you can take a college trip, encourage your teen to take ownership of some of the planning. Have them set up the information sessions and tours. If the school is in driving distance, let them spend some time behind the wheel. Sharing responsibility for the planning and traveling may translate to being more engaged during the visits themselves. Remind them to ask questions of admissions officers, tour guides and current students. There are questions that can, and should, come from parents; you will likely have your own checklist as you look at colleges. Just remember that admissions staff notice when the parents do all the talking – and it may not send the right message.

Help your teen stay organized during the application process.

With students applying to an average of ten schools, the number of required essays and supplemental information can add up quickly. Factor in AP assignments, theatre rehearsals and last minute college tours, and students can easily fall behind on important deadlines. Register with colleges early to see what additional essays may be required — often, the shorter, school-specific essays are treated with less care than the longer writing pieces, but they are no less important. And keep in mind that there may be earlier deadlines for merit scholarships, honors programs or need-based aid. Help your teen to establish a central place or system to manage the timeline – let them handle it, but check in frequently. Admissions offices have little sympathy for missed deadlines; everyone is required to meet the same dates and they will receive thousands of applications a year from students who submit on time.

Talk about the cost of college, early and often.  

It’s never easy to say no to your child. College is an expensive investment, and reports of rising tuition costs and burdensome student debt are staples in the news today. When thinking about “fit,” be sure to consider the cost of attendance, and discuss this with your child. What can your family afford? Do you expect that they will contribute by finding an on-campus job? How likely is it that merit scholarships will be offered? These are not conversations to put off until decisions start arriving in the spring. The more open you are about the role finances will play in an enrollment decision, the less it will sting if the “dream” school is simply not affordable. On this note, be sure you understand what is required for a financial aid application – deadlines and required forms are likely to differ for every college, and much of the information will need to come from parents.

Be optimistic, but prepare for rejection.

Admissions decisions begin to arrive by late winter and early spring, and they are now released through online applicant accounts or email. This means that good and bad news can be accessed with little fanfare or preparation. You may not even be around when they receive their “letter.” Discuss possible decision outcomes and be there to offer support through the notification process. For some students, this is the first real experience with rejection. Try not to lose sight of the very important role you play during this time; they will look to you as they process this news. The protective parent in you may want to immediately call the admissions office, demanding what went wrong, but this does not set a good example for handling rejection. Admissions decisions are usually final, and no matter how passionately you plead your case, it’s unlikely to be overturned. This can be a very good, very humbling, exercise for students and parents alike.

Listen, but know you can’t fix everything.

The stress of high school academics, standardized testing and extra-curricular activities, combined with the added pressure of college applications can be overwhelming for even the most even-tempered and organized students. If you can create a space where they feel comfortable airing their frustrations, they may be more likely seek out your help and advice with handling these competing priorities. Throughout this process, be patient and encourage your teen to be communicative about their excitement and concerns, college, applications, and the last year of high school. You won’t be able to alleviate all of their stresses, but sometimes just knowing that you are there to listen is enough. Resist the temptation to do the work for them. And when all else fails, remind them that every year, thousands upon thousands of high school seniors manage to survive this process, and they will, too.

Stacey MiltonSurviving Admissions Season: Tips for Parents