How to Cultivate Independence During the College Application Process [Opinion]

Moving from high school to college marks one of the biggest transitions in many teens’ lives, shifting from dependence on their parents to self-reliance.

The process of gaining this autonomy, however, unfolds alongside the stress of college planning. As parents, we all want our children to develop the skills necessary to become happy and successful adults. And hands-on parenting can improve students’ success in the classroom.

In fact, a report from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory analyzing 51 relevant studies shows that a number of parental behaviors — talking about school with kids, expecting good grades from them, and communicating with teachers — are all positively correlated with students earning higher grades, electing to take more challenging classes, and graduating from high school in greater numbers (to name a few). But the traditional four-year college experience, in which a student leaves home for perhaps the first time, presents a new set of circumstances requiring a more hands-off approach.

For parents, it can be difficult to nurture a teen’s independence while also offering the right level of support when it comes to college applications. Striking this balance can be difficult.

Here are some things you can do to stay involved, but let your child do the heavy lifting.

Planning and Communicating

First and foremost, high schoolers should know that while you’re there to help them if and when they need it, getting into college depends upon their participation and performance. By establishing appropriate goals and expectations, parents can help their kids stay on track without controlling the process.

As a parent, there are a few things you should do to set your child up for success:

  • Help her decide on the right mix of schools to apply to.
  • Work to create a timeline she can follow on her own.
  • Be clear in setting boundaries, and be firm about what you won’t do (like writing essays or sending emails to admissions officers).
  • Explain how paying for college works, including the Estimated Financial Contribution (an index number — used on the FAFSA to establish how much financial aid a student might receive if she were to attend a given school).
  • Make geographic and financial concerns about college options known early in the process.
  • Agree upon which parts of the applications you’ll review (perhaps only the financial components) to ensure accuracy.

Encouraging Her Voice

Any communication related to college admissions, with the exception of reporting certain economic information, should come from the student.

A parent who takes the reins from her child at any point during the admissions process may not only undermine the student’s independence, but could also derail her acceptance to the school of her choice. Imagine a student not being able to answer a question about her application in an interview because her parents helped answer questions and write essays.

While the student should take the lead throughout the application process, this is especially important when it comes to the personal statement. It’s called personal for a reason; an essay that lacks a student’s own voice suggests to admissions officers that she lacks the freethinking independence and necessary self-advocacy skills to be successful in college.

For this reason, it is important to allow the teen to write the college essay from her own perspective. It’s still a good idea, however, to seek editorial guidance from a trusted outside resource, such as a professional college planner, English teacher, or guidance counselor.

Embracing Her Role in the Transition

According to the results of a survey published by the College Board and the Art & Science Group, 51 percent of high school students reported that their parents were involved in their college planning, with 28 percent reporting that they actually would like their parents to have more involvement. It can be a slippery slope, though. Too much involvement and the teen may not take the necessary ownership of the college planning process.

By embracing the transition from child to young adult and allowing your kid to take the lead on college applications, she will learn self-reliance, self-advocacy, and independent thinking. She will still need your support throughout the process, but it should be up to her to determine when and where that involvement is needed inside the boundaries you’ve talked about.

Wearing the Sweatshirt

One of the keys to striking the right balance between involvement and encouragement is to make it clear that any decisions made by the teen (within the parameters you agreed upon when you had your initial planning conversation) will have your full support. This can be difficult, but questioning a teen’s plans, assuming she’s able to walk you through them and explain them in a rational and logical way, can seriously undermine her confidence. This is especially true when the student feels stripped of her independence.

One simple way of letting your child know she has your support is showing school spirit for the college she chooses. Buying a sweatshirt, sporting a bumper sticker, or wearing school colors can be a nice reassurance to a student that her parents are proud of her and that her relationship with you is not dependent upon her following the plan you’ve laid out for her.

In the end, providing a voice of reassurance and support will send a message to your child that her hard work during the high school-to-college transition will mark a positive and empowering beginning in her early adulthood.

For more honest insight from Noodle Experts, check out this advice on applying to college.

Also, use the personalized, free Noodle college search tool to find the schools that are a good fit for you.