Parents and the College Admissions Process

The majority of those going through the college process are just trying to find a good match, a college that best meets their needs and goals. And most parents want what is best for their children. Yet there seems to be this prevailing sentiment that parents need to micromanage this process.  Yet what parents need to do most is support and protect their children while allowing them to grow.
Years ago, I pushed my three-year-old around the neighborhood on his tricycle equipped with a handle in the back. In the beginning, I needed to help him steer the tricycle for he had no concept of how to do it. Very quickly, though, I realized that the only way to help him learn how to steer was to allow him to start going off the sidewalk on his own. He soon learned how to correct himself and head on a straight course. I am still behind him, keeping him from hurting himself by hurtling off the curb or into oncoming traffic. I no longer steer or control his bike. He knows I am there and finds safety and comfort in the fact that I will protect him from danger. But he equally knows he is the one steering and controlling the bike. As time goes on, he will begin to ride the bike without me there at all.

This is the same role parents should take in the college admissions process. At a minimum, they should be there to make sure their children do not harm themselves, say, by missing deadlines or not as a result being accepted into any colleges, or just as worse any that you can afford. More than this, they need to be there to support their children in making some of the toughest decisions of their life to this point. There are many more important decisions, from choosing a spouse to choosing a job. But this is the first time in most children’s life when they have had to make a lasting decision about their future.

“The increasingly bad ‘parental etiquette’ that college admissions officers are seeing right now comes from a confluence of several characteristics of our boomer generation,” one college admissions dean writes. “Our sense of entitlement, our suspicion of authority and our bad habit of living too vicariously through our children.” Dean William Fitzsimmons of Harvard, similarly notes: “Sports, music and other recreational activities used to provide a welcome break. No more. In high school, SAT prep has become a way of life. The problem can often be well meaning but misguided parents who try to mold their children into an image of success they value; and their children, being moldable as they are, often get on board and go along with the programs before they have the capacity to make such a choice for themselves.”

“The launching of a child stirs up everyone in the family,” notes Michael G. Thompson. “For the parents it is the culmination of their child rearing, the end of the parental curriculum. From now if they act as parents for a college-age or older child, it will be by invitation only.”

What is the main testing ground of fears about incomplete or inadequate child rearing?
The College Admission Process.

If you are afraid you don’t discipline your children enough–too much Dr. Spock–the incriminating evidence of parental failure is right there in front of everyone. The child is not filling out her college applications!

If you are afraid you have allowed your children to watch too much television and settle for low grades, the chickens all come home to roost–painfully and publicly–during the meeting with the college counselor at the end of junior year.

The frantic involvement of many parents in the process is, from my perspective, a cover for this profound parental anxiety: Did I do a good job with this child? Did I do everything I needed to do for this child? Is this child prepared? Is this child going to have a good life? I have seen many laissez-faire parents, not much in evidence in the tenth and eleventh grade years, swoop back into their children’s lives at college admission time, trying to stuff all of their wisdom and discipline into their children at the last moment.
Parents may need to be reassured as their fledglings leave the nest that they really have taught them how to fly. Since it is impossible to assess the quality of what parents have done for their children at this point, what is the next best thing? What comes closest to getting graded as parents?  The status of the college to which the child is admitted.

Some Advice for Parents

1) Be honest with your kids about restrictions and needs. If there is only so much money to go around, if there are geographic restrictions, if there is anything that may restrict college choices, communicate them to your child and the counselor.

2) Listen, listen, and listen! Hear what your kids are saying. What is important to them? Don’t tell your kids what you think until you’ve heard what they think

3) Keep an open mind. Colleges have changed dramatically since we went to school. Don’t rely on impressions based on old stereotypes. Realize that there are some great schools you may never have heard of.

4) Move away from a pecking order mentality. The best college for your child may not be the most competitive to get into or the highest on some college list.

5) Sometime in the spring of junior year, sit down with your child and set up a calendar of when each part of the process will be done. Set up a schedule of college visits, a testing schedule, deadlines for when essays drafts will be completed and when final essays are completed, when all applications are to be completed, etc. Have your child recommend the deadlines instead of your imposing them. They will almost always make them more rigorous than you would.

6) Read over your child’s essay to see if it communicates who they are, how well they think and how well they write.

7) Make sure your child has a college that is both a financial safety school as well as an admissions safety school.

Some don’ts for parents to consider

1) Don’t micromanage the process. Occasionally make sure that your kids are on track to meet deadlines, but don’t nag, nag, nag. If you are concerned that your kid is not on track, call your child’s counselor and let him/her help get your kid moving.

2) Don’t talk to other parents about where your kid is applying.

3) Don’t let any deadlines lapse, especially with regard to financial aid.

4) Don’t add your voice to your child’s essay. Content and style suggestions should not include re-writing what your child has written.

5) Don’t get caught up in the college frenzy.

6) Don’t try to create an ‘image’ for your child. Don’t try to ‘package’ your child. Don’t try to do something special between junior and senior year to try to make your child an attractive college candidate. Colleges want students to have depth and breath of experiences. Foster what your child wants to do and is good at. Don’t try to create something that sounds good.

The bottom line is that the goal of college admissions is to find a match between what the student needs and what the college offers.

Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as or 973-919-6798.

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