One of the toughest parts of a parent’s job is knowing when to provide guidance and when to stand back and let your child self-direct their activities. It’s a delicate balancing act that grows even more challenging as your teen begins the college admissions process. What should your role be? How involved should you get? Don’t fret – we’ll explain how to support your student in their college search.
What Can Help
Breathe easy, because your to-do list is a lot shorter than you might expect it to be. When it comes to college admissions, your job is to act like a consultant for your child – not a project manager. Your child should be in full command of the college search and all its related activities. However, there are some things you can do to assist your child through the process:
Set Expectations for Your Role
Sit down and have a frank discussion with your child before the process starts. Let them know that you’re not there to push a particular school or academic path, but to provide support as they explore colleges and choose the one that’s right for them.
Also, be clear about what you will or won't do. Explain that you are there to be a sounding board and to help them find the best college fit, but they are ultimately in charge of the process. This includes researching schools, understanding admissions requirements, setting up campus tours, writing their own application essays, and meeting all deadlines.
For your child to succeed in college and plan their own academic paths, it’s important to resist the urge to micromanage. Colleges are filled with students who struggle in their first year, largely because of parents who have directed every aspect of their child’s life up until that point.
Discuss Family Finances
It’s helpful to have a conversation with your child about how much you can contribute to their education, and how much they will be responsible for contributing, either through cash or financial aid like loans, grants, or scholarships. Financial aid and scholarships can dramatically reduce the sticker price of a school, but it’s a good idea for your student to keep financial fit in mind during the college search. Nothing is more heartbreaking than getting into your dream school only to discover you can’t afford it.
Help Your Child Make Decisions
The college admissions process is a great time for teens to learn more about themselves and gain valuable experience making important decisions on their own. Let your child know you trust them to make good choices. Rather than directing your student, ask probing questions to help them think through all the angles before making decisions.
For example, some parents want to know which admissions test they should make their student take. This is a decision best left to your child. Help them gather information about the tests, learn what the target schools require, and then let your student do the work.
You can also ask if they feel they need a test-prep class, a tutor, or if they prefer to prepare for the tests by themselves. Then respect their decision. Supporting decision-making is good for your relationship, teaches problem-solving and encourages autonomy.
Provide Quality Control
While it’s never a good idea to do all the heavy lifting for your child, it is appropriate to serve as quality control officer for their work. Offer to double check applications, provide suggestions on improving an admissions essay, review scholarship applications, or any other activities where it’s helpful to have a second set of eyes.
What Can Hinder
It’s easy to get overly invested in your child’s success and morph into a domineering helicopter parent. Worse yet, some parents completely cross the line into unethical or illegal activity, as evidenced by the recent Operation Varsity Blues admissions scandal. With that in mind, here are some actions to avoid:
Misrepresenting Your Child’s Qualifications
If your child is not a champion athlete, mathlete or the youngest member to ever join Mensa, DO NOT pay an admissions consultant to represent your student as such. It is illegal, and you could find yourself spending time behind bars (a la Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman).
In your role as consultant, you SHOULD review your student’s applications and supporting documents to ferret out any untruths. If your child is admitted to a college, and it’s discovered that some application information was fudged, your student’s admission offer could be rescinded, or if they are already attending the college, they could be expelled.
Tell the truth – it’s that simple.
Contacting Admissions Offices on Your Child’s Behalf
Just don’t do it. Your student likely will not appreciate the intrusion, and in many cases, the admissions office will not discuss an applicant’s file with anyone but the applicant.
Also, restraining yourself now is good practice for later. Once your student matriculates at a college, your parental rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) transfer exclusively to your child. If you call the college requesting information about your student’s grades, selected major, financial aid, or anything else, they will not release it to you.
Taking Over the Application Process
Remember, you are a consultant, not a ghostwriter or an executive assistant. While it’s good to keep tabs on general timelines, offer help, and provide gentle reminders, DO NOT write application essays, submit applications on your student’s behalf, or nag endlessly about taking the SAT “just one more time.”
Applying to college can help your student build the skills necessary to successfully navigate college life, from managing time to solving problems to meeting deadlines. You will not be there to remind your child to study for a test, turn in a paper, or register for classes, so it’s important to help them build independence now. If they struggle to make it through the admissions process without extensive parental help, chances are they are not ready for the challenges of college.
As a side note, admissions officers can usually tell when an essay is written by a 50-year-old mom or dad instead of a 17-year-old high school student. You could end up hurting instead of helping your student’s chances for admission.
Dominating Campus Tours
Don’t be that parent. You know – the one who asks a thousand questions and harangues the tour guides while your child slinks silently behind you, dying from embarrassment.
Remember, this is their process to direct. Before heading off to campus tours, it’s a good idea to discuss what you and your student hope to learn on the visit and develop a list of potential questions. Then, let your child run with it, and try to limit your questioning. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get all the facts on the first try. You and your student can debrief after the visit and contact the admissions recruiter with any follow-up questions.
Speaking of which, if you and your student want to explore USF, schedule a campus visit at one of our three gorgeous Florida Gulf Coast locations. Our student-led tours give you an up-close view of our top-rated academic facilities, dining options, student support offices, recreation and other points of pride, plus you’ll hear from current USF students about what life is really like at our dynamic university.
About Jen Carlevatti
Jen Carlevatti is the former Associate Director of Communications for USF’s Office of Admissions. Currently, she is a freelance Content Developer for USF’s Office of Innovative Education. She enjoys writing blog articles that empower students and their families to successfully navigate the college admissions and financial aid processes.