Parents: How to Survive College Application Season

Family working togetherBy: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
Parents: you will survive this. Just let me say that right now, up front.  Your student will be accepted to multiple colleges and will have good choices, and your relationship does not have to end or even suffer under the strain of reaching that goal this Fall. 
Get them set up on with their own personal timeline of tasks, and the system will guide them through so you don’t have to nag them. Also, your high school will likely offer events geared toward Seniors and this is a great way for your student to connect with peers and get started. It’s normal for parents to be nervous about this process, but college application season does not have to be the end of you, nor does it have to cause increased tension or raised voices at home.  As I look back across 20 years of watching parents traverse this particular rite of passage with their teens, I have come up with some best practices, survival tips, if you will.
1. Realize that your teen will do this process on his or her own timeline, and that yes, while applying Early Action typically increases admissions chances, if he or she can’t get their act together to learn that, then the school of hard knocks starts now. And that’s ok. That’s good. They need to stretch their wings, and that involves you and I letting them do things at their own pace.
2. Do not edit their rough drafts. It will drive both of you crazy. Parents panic because they see the rough work, and kids feel nagged so they want nothing to do with it. They can ask their English teacher to look over a draft or two, and they can submit essays on this site to be edited by actual English teachers.  However, parents editing rough drafts has never been a pretty sight in my experience, and parents writing the essays hurts admissions chances and doesn’t help the kids learn to manage their own workloads.
3. Realize that all kids have choices at the end of this process when their college list is done properly. They do not need to apply to more than 7-8 schools (2 Safety, 3 Match, 2 Reach). You should, by all means, approve their final college list, but do not panic and feel compelled to suggest they apply to 5 or 6 more places, just in case.  This diminishes the quality of work they will do because they already have so much on their plate (5 or 6 apps is A LOT of work), and the chances are that they will be accepted to many of those 5 or 6 schools and then will be completely unable to decide where to go. This seems like a good idea on the front end because you can feel like you have played the odds and covered your bases, but the nightmare comes when they can’t decide which of their 12 acceptances they should commit to in May.
4. Do not compare your student to others. All kids move at different paces and all kids “turn on” to this process at different points. From my experience they fall into 3 groups: started working in June and worked all summer, started working in August and are in pretty good shape now, will start working at some point during September or October when they see everyone else at school is talking about college apps. Most apps are due around January 1st, so I do encourage kids to have everything done by Thanksgiving.
5. Try not to move into crisis mode when your student has poorly planned. Some of the best parenting I have seen over the years, admirable and admittedly tough to do, is when parents in effect say, “You made this bed, now you will lie in it and learn from this.” When this happens it is impressive, every single time, for the sheer restraint it must take to avoid kicking yourself into high gear and pulling an all nighter to save the day.
6. Make your student call the colleges. It makes your student look bad when you are doing their research and homework. By making these phone calls and sending these emails, your student has a chance to learn business etiquette right there in your home, with you nearby to offer input. That’s priceless.
7.  Let your student apply where they want to, albeit where you can afford to send them. Check the net price calculator on each college’s website, but remember: the pricetag of tuition means nothing because private colleges (and some state ones) offer merit aid to attract students for various reasons so you will never know exactly what a school is going to cost until you get the acceptance letter.  Be realistic about expectations, but let them dream, too. There is nothing worse than living the rest of your life wondering what if…
8. Resist the urge to suggest colleges that you yourself would have liked to apply to, or colleges with names that you would be proud to tell people about. Kids are very aware of these parental expectations–often inventing or even exaggerating them–so parents need to be cautious in talking about any schools (especially Reach schools). Help your student by taking them to visit some campuses and encouraging them to really identify what they are looking for. When they know what they like, it is easier for them to identify it on their college list.

Let them go and let them navigate this process on their own terms. Offer your support and encouragement, and mostly just keep saying positive things to them so they begin to believe that this will all go just fine, which it will. If the college list is designed well, and if they have someone look over their writings, then everything has a way of working itself out for the best, for every kiddo, every time.  That is the one thing I have seen over these 20 years: they all end up where they are meant to be.


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