The College Application Process | A Parent Guide
By Haley DeLeon | Last Updated: Aug 17, 2022
The college application process is an exciting and stressful time in your child’s life and for you as a parent. After all, you’ve offered your support throughout the educational journey up until this point, and you want to ensure your child makes the most of the experience and ultimately choose the right college.
Ready to discover your role in the college application process and where can you help the most? Here’s what you need to know as your child begins applying to colleges.
Common Questions From College Parents Answered
Starting the application process with a teen will feel overwhelming for most college parents. Here are a few basics so you can know how to get started.
What’s In a College Application?
A college application typically includes an online or paper application form along with additional items, such as your child’s high school transcript, entrance exam scores, a personal essay, and letters of recommendation.
When Should My Child Start Working on College Applications?
While students can start preparing for college during their junior year of high school, they typically start on the applications the summer before or fall of their senior year. The summer is a great time to start checking application deadlines, researching colleges, and creating a college list. College application deadlines usually range from January 1 to February 1, except for colleges with rolling admission deadlines like USF. Some colleges may also offer the opportunity to apply early, before the usual deadline, and get a decision sooner.
In addition, some colleges may have priority or early admission deadlines for applications. Applying with these deadlines in mind can help students have the best shot at obtaining scholarships and admission. For example, USF priority application deadline for freshman students seeking Fall admissions is November 1st. The priority deadline ensures students will get their preferred campus and may be less competitive.
What Can My Child Do Over the Summer to Prepare for College?
There are several things your child can do over the summer to get ready for college:
- Create a college list: Start making a list of colleges they may be interested in applying to.
- Prepare for the SAT and ACT: Study for college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT by answering practice questions and taking practice exams.
- Take the SAT: The SAT is offered at the end of August in most cities, which allows your child to take it before they get too busy with their senior year. Some schools allow students to superscore, which means greater chances for gaining admission to their school of choice.
- Get ready for the FAFSA: You can help your teen get ready for the FAFSA by gathering all the materials you’ll need to complete it.
For more information, check out our senior year college checklist.
How Many Colleges Should My Child Apply To?
While the exact number depends on your child’s individual circumstances, a good rule of thumb is three reach colleges, two match colleges, and one safety school. You can read more about the difference between reach, match, and safety schools here.
Should We Wait Until We’ve Completed the FAFSA to Apply to Colleges?
You don’t have to wait to apply to college until you finish the FAFSA or other financial aid forms. The FAFSA opens on October 1, and you should complete the forms as early as possible in the fall of your child’s senior year. Your family should still complete the FAFSA even if your child isn’t sure where they want to apply to college.
How Can I Get a Copy of My Child’s High School Transcript?
Most colleges require an official high school transcript as a part of the application, and it must be sent directly from your child’s school. A high school transcript is a record of all the classes they have taken and the grades they received. Your child’s school counselor can help you get an unofficial transcript for your records and help you request an official transcript from your school.
How Can I Find Out What Colleges My Child Sent Their SAT or ACT Scores To?
To find out where your child has already sent their SAT scores, you can log in to their College Board account with their username and password to see the Student Score Reports page. Then, click “View Details” for the relevant SAT date and click “Score Sends” from the menu.
You can view where your child sent their ACT scores in their MyACT account.
Why Do College Applications Ask for Parents’ Information?
Because your student is often still a dependent, you as the parent are responsible for paying for their college education. Parent data determines the expected family contribution (EFC) in the FAFSA, which in turn determines how much need-based aid students can receive.
Dos and Don’ts for Parents in the College Application Process
Choosing where to attend college is a big decision. Parents can help their teens decide based on financial aid information, academic opportunities, student life and resources, and other factors.
The following tips can help you strike the right balance in supporting your teen throughout the college application process.
Help Them Choose the Right School
While you don’t want to pressure students into choosing a particular school, they will still need your help in making this big commitment. You can help guide your teen by asking questions at the beginning of the application process to help inform what they are looking for:
- What do you want out of college?
- What kind of environment do you want to study in?
- What student resources and activities are you looking for?
- Do you prefer a large or smaller campus?
- Do you want to stay local or attend an out-of-state school?
- What extracurriculars do you want to continue with?
These questions will get them thinking about what they want to major in, where they want to go to college, and what to look for when evaluating schools. Engaging in regular discussion will help when it comes to making their final decision because you will be able to remind them of their priorities. You also can remind them that there are a lot of good options – it’s a monumental decision, but not a life-or-death one.
Provide Emotional Support
The college admissions process can be stressful for students. Parents can help by supporting their children’s mental health when things get tough. Take the time to listen so your child can express their frustrations and anxieties without fear of judgment.
Help Them Choose a Major
If your child is unsure what they want to major in, you can help guide them by asking them some questions that will help spur ideas:
- Do you know what you want to study?
- What are your favorite classes in school now?
- Are you interested in any industries or jobs?
Taking a career test can also help them start to think about their likes and dislikes and which majors can lead to career paths that interest them.
After selecting a major or defining possible career interests, you and your child can better evaluate the academic opportunities at each college. This includes majors and minors offered, course selections, accessibility and engagement of faculty, undergraduate research opportunities, and study abroad programs.
Be Proactive in the Financial Aid Process
This is a big one. Helping your child assess the potential cost of a college education and how you will pay for it is imperative. You should take a moment to determine your family’s annual income and expenses and familiarize yourself with all the costs of attendance (tuition, housing, meals, mandatory fees, etc.). The Office of Federal Student Aid has a list of resources to help you save for college, learn about financial aid, and understand the application process.
Then, have an honest discussion with your child about your financial parameters to clearly explain what you will be able to provide and what will need to be obtained through financial aid and scholarships. This includes a frank discussion on student loan debt and its implications. You and your child can sit down and compare financial aid offers to make an informed decision about where you can get the best deal. While award letters often show the cost for one year of enrollment, it’s critical to consider the total four-year cost for each school to make the best decision.
Help With the Timeline
While you don’t want to nag, you can help your child by creating a general schedule of when to attend college fairs, visit campuses, finish applications, and complete other steps in the process. Do your homework, but also remember while you can nudge your child along and offer support them, you can’t do everything for them.
Support Their Independence
College is generally the first foray into independence for teens, and their application process should reflect that. You can foster independent thinking and behavior by letting them be in the driver’s seat throughout the process. For example, when the decision letter comes in the mail, save it for your child to open no matter how curious you are to see its contents.
Visit Colleges Together
The campus visit is an integral part of the college application process and an area where you can help your teen. Make the most of the campus visit by taking detailed notes and asking open-ended questions.
Don’t Be Overbearing
Sometimes parents can get overly involved in the college admissions process, from pushing their child to apply to certain schools to steering them towards specific majors against their will. For example, instead of pushing your student into too many extracurricular activities, encourage them to pursue their interests. Putting too much pressure on your child will simply add to the stress and create more friction in the process.
Don’t Pressure Them to Choose a Certain School
Maybe you’re really proud of your alma mater. Maybe you want your child to attend a highly ranked institution. Maybe you always wanted to attend a school across the country and have a “typical” college experience. None of these personal desires should be projected onto your child. Instead, offer assistance and support and keep your personal feelings out of the final decision.
Don’t Compare Your Child to Others
While it’s easy to hold up your child’s acceptances and rejections to your friend’s kids’ application success, this is important to avoid. It’s not fair to compare individuals who have so many different interests, talents, and family circumstances.
Don’t Do the Work for Them
You should also make sure your teen takes responsibility for their college application process instead of doing it yourself. From writing application essays to keeping track of deadlines, your child needs to be able to take on the bulk of the duties. Think of this as a way of preparing for the independence of college.
The Parents’ Role in the College Application Process
Overall, you should make sure you are supportive and open-minded regarding the college application process. You are there to help guide your teen into making the right decision and becoming an independent adult.
For more tips on the college application process, subscribe to our blog to get regular advice in your inbox. You can also reach out to the Office of Admissions with any specific application questions.
About Haley DeLeon
Haley DeLeon is a content developer with extensive experience in the higher education sector. She is passionate about creating content that helps students and their families throughout the admissions journey.