The college application process requires an all-hands on deck approach for students, their parents and guardians, and school counselors.
If you’re a parent or guardian who feels uncertain about how much support to offer your child throughout the college admissions journey, there are many ways you can help them find their way—without taking over completely.
This blog post will offer tips for finding the balance between offering your child helpful guidance and becoming overbearing.
What Role Should Parents and Guardians Play in College Admissions?
The number one role parents and guardians should play in the college admissions process is support. It’s a stressful time for your child and guidance from a trusted adult is important to keeping them on track.
Parents and guardians can be a “sounding board” for their children by asking appropriate questions throughout the process — but without their own agenda.
“This is the first adult decision of your children’s lives,” says Keith Moon, associate dean of Harvard’s Summer School Program. “It’s important to empower your children to make the decision that’s best for them.”
How to Support Your Child in the Process
There are several ways parents and guardians can lend support to their children during the college application process.
Each student and family is unique, so it might take a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best.
Here are a few suggestions to help get the ball rolling.
Help Students Find Their Passion
Many students may not know what they want to study when applying for college. Parents and guardians can help their children find their passion by advocating for them to explore their interests.
One way to do this is to take notice of your child’s pastimes and hobbies and try to connect them to potential areas of study.
Asking about the courses your child is interested in can also guide this process—a report card is limited in the information it can give about your child’s true passions.
“Encouraging your child to find ways to test drive their interests is really important,” says Joseph Walcott Lewis, associate director of Harvard Crimson Summer Academy. “We need to give them space to figure it out and to change, and encourage them along the way.”
Facilitate College Tours
Offer to take your child on college tours and allow them to do the majority of the planning. College tours can help both you and your children make a more informed decision after seeing the prospective schools in person.
“Some parents really dread those trips, but I would encourage them to turn it more into a family vacation,” says Moon. “Allowing the student to drive that process is a really good thing—this shouldn’t be mom or dad’s list of schools to see, it should be the student’s list.”
Set a Schedule With Deadlines
As deadlines approach, parents and guardians can provide structure through gentle reminders and check-ins. Check in with how your child is feeling, too, not just what they’re doing. This can help keep you informed of their progress without being too pushy.
Though it can be challenging, it’s important to ask your child what they need from you before jumping in with what you might think is helpful.
Moon says parents and guardians should try to think of themselves as “support staff” for their children, rather than the leaders.
You can sit down with your child and help create a calendar to keep track of deadlines and what they need to do to prepare. Help your child stay organized and gather the information they need to submit their applications—but don’t put on too much pressure.
“If at any point the process is starting to stress out the parents, then it becomes not so fun and that’s going to put a lot of strain on the student,” says Moon.”
Identify Additional Support Structures
If the college applications process feels too overwhelming or opaque, ask for help from a guidance counselor or a community-based organization dedicated to helping high school students.
“They’re part of an ecosystem of support—the more support the better,” says Lewis. “We want parents to feel like a partner in the work. We don’t want to alienate the parents, but want to keep the student at the center.”
Ask the Questions Your Child Doesn’t Think to Ask
Many parents and guardians have the benefit of age and experience and will be able to ask the questions that their child may not think to ask.
One crucial topic parents and guardians should be aware of is financial aid. It is important to understand the terms for each financial aid package, such as what parts of the aid are renewable or just one-time. Parents should also ensure they are planning for year-to-year financial adjustments into which their children likely have less insight.
The realities of financial aid may put parents and guardians and their children in a position to have difficult conversations, says Lewis.
“Parents should be very forthcoming with their child in the realm of financial aid,” he says. “It’s important across all incomes because the financial needs of the student in terms of what they can or can’t afford play a role in how students craft a list or how they can decide.”
Travel is another element that students tend to overlook. Parents and guardians can help their children explore logistical questions about getting to and from school, especially during busy travel periods like the holidays.
“There’s no magic carpet that automatically gets you from Houston to Boston,” says Moon.
When Do Parents and Guardians Become Too Involved in the College Admission Process?
It can be difficult for parents and guardians to shift from the role of managing many different aspects of their children’s lives to supporting their children as they continue to gain independence.
But it’s important to be mindful of how you provide that support. Here are a few common mistakes parents can make during the college application process.
Do Not Overstep Your Bounds
The college application process is often a stressful time for the whole family. Figuring out the appropriate level of involvement can take some time, but will avoid straining your relationship with your child in the long run.
Tension can arise if you don’t rely on your child to do the work or try to do it all yourself—this is a good opportunity to take a backseat instead.
“The impulse is to figure things out for their kids, but if [parents] try to overbake the cake, it can end up not being a very successful relationship,” says Moon.
Communication is another important element of the college application process. Talk to your child about their needs and follow through.
“The only way to reach those points of understanding with each other are to have those conversations that are as close to adult conversations as they’ve ever had,” added Moon.
Do Not Become a Helicopter Parent
Parents and guardians commonly become “helicopter parents” if they previously attended the school their child is interested in or have a specific idea of what success looks like.
As your child goes through the college admissions process, be mindful of when you might be projecting your own desires onto them.
“If parents and students are not aligned with what success looks like, when it comes to decision making, that’s when students and parents are confronted with a bit of tension,” says Lewis.
Also try to keep in mind that college likely looks very different than when you attended and your child has access to resources that you may not have.
Harvard’s Summer School offers panels, discussions, and Q&A sessions with administrators to answer questions that parents, guardians and students may have.
Do Not Do Everything For Your Child
It can be tempting to jump in and try to solve every issue as it arises, but that will likely end up being less helpful.
The key is to empower students to make their own decisions, says Lewis. The college applications process is “simultaneously joyous but really scary because of the weight that it carries,” he said.
As a parent or guardian, it can be more helpful to reassure your child of their capabilities rather than trying to fix everything for them.
“Parents can be really helpful in terms of the logistics, but at the end of the day, the student has to be driving that process,” says Moon. “If the parents are doing all the work, the student is not going to learn independence.”
Don’t Have Rigid Expectations
The college admissions process can be an exploratory period if both parents or guardians and students can keep an open channel of communication with one another.
Likewise, keep an open mind about what your child is thinking and feeling. Be a safe space for them to express insecurities or even to change their minds.
“There’s no way a student can succeed if what a student is being held up to is some mythical standard of someone else,” says Moon. “There’s nothing good about envy or wanting something for your child that your child doesn’t also want. There’s no positive outcome from that.”
How Do You Strike the Right Balance?
One thing to remember about the college admissions process is that it is a team effort—students, parents, guardians, teachers, guidance counselors, and community organizations can all be players in the student’s success.
Take the time to reflect on how far your child has come and make space to appreciate it.
“Some parents might dwell on the not-so successful parts of the process, which puts an undue burden on the student,” says Lewis. “Instead, look at the grand scheme and celebrate the success that’s there.”
Ultimately, centering your student is the most important aspect of the journey.
“The key thing is listening,” says Moon. “It’s the most important thing a parent can do.”