What (Not) to Do When Your Child Is Applying to College

During the college application stage, parents can feel like this is their last opportunity to contribute to their child’s success.

This stressor affects how parents handle these crucial months. For example, some parents may take over, while others may overanalyze every decision. In the meantime, the adolescent and her journey are often lost in the wake. Parents forget or do not realize that college application time is when their child will be determining, often by her parents’ actions and reactions, whether she is capable of even surviving, let alone succeeding, in the “real world.” If the process is treated with respect, it can become an influential learning moment in a child’s life.

While well-intentioned parents scramble and hover, they may be sending messages to their child that can hinder her success at the very universities to which they plan to send her. To help prevent this from happening, below is a comprehensive “Do’s and Don’ts” list to for parents to follow when venturing through the college admissions process.

The Do’s

Do prepare for a conversation with your child.

Before having any conversations with you child about college plans, you will need to consider what you think, what you think she thinks, and how you feel about what you and she may be thinking. It sounds exhausting, but this preparation will ensure that the conversation is productive and healthy.

Take some time to remember what is so amazing or uniquely “her” about her. Pull out old pictures, videos, or class essays. Think about what she may love to do with her life and where she may love to go. Try to decipher between your wants and what you truly think would be the best fit for her. Do you think she would benefit from attending at a big university or a smaller one? Maybe it would help for her to go to community college for a year or take a gap year for some soul-searching. Would you be open to this? Under what terms would these options be OK with you?

Remember, any opinions you have should be backed by evidence. You should be able to say, “I think you may enjoy being at a large university because (fill in something about HER here).”

Do listen.

So, now you have looked into what kind of schools you think would be a good fit for your child. The next step is to remember that this is her journey, and she knows herself better than anyone else.

If you listen to how she reacts to your suggestions, and to what suggestions she has, you could find yourself with a new opportunity to get to know the teenager who has been mysteriously venturing in and out of your home for the past few years. Maybe she has been thinking about colleges, speaking with friends about the application process, or looking at choices on the Internet. Be supportive of any work that she has already done, and listen to what she thinks about what she has found.

She is looking to your response to decide whether you think she is ready for this next step, so do not shut her down. Also, be willing to venture beyond the college conversation; if she hasn’t done much with this journey, openly speak with her about why. Maybe something is going on in her life that you did not know about. Allow her to open up.

If you think she could use some guidance beyond what you can offer, let her know about other available resources. You can suggest having her speak to a college counselor, trusted teacher, or another adult she is close to. If you are concerned for her (and not just in regards to the college application process), you can reach out to administrators at your child’s school for assistance.

Do stay connected.

Tell her why you think she is amazing. Thank her for sharing information about herself with you. Set a time when the two of you can check in to see how things are going, and ask her what goals she can reasonably set for herself between now and then.

Ask her if she would like your help with anything; if she says no, then allow her to do this on her own. Ask her how she thought the meeting went, and what you could do better next time. Try to end on a positive note, so this becomes a working relationship, not a series of painful interactions.

The Don’ts

Don’t do the work for her.

It can be painful to watch your child appear to do nothing college-related, while you most likely have the impending doom message running on repeat in your mind: “This is one of the most important steps she will take! I need to do everything I can to make sure she goes to the right school, or at least a school!”

It is difficult to avoid this message; parents are often haunted by hindsight of their own experiences or sucked into the college gossip vortex of surrounding parents. And the easiest fix for your anxiety is, of course, to take over! You fill out the applications and write the essay, and she will thank you later, right? Not necessarily.

By taking over the process, you are sending a message that you do not believe she is capable of doing this herself, that she does not need to give any input into her future, and that it is OK to ignore whatever she is going through that is getting in the way of her completing this process. You also keep her from developing the skills — and the confidence in her skills — that she’ll need to succeed in college.

If she is dragging her feet, meet with her and find out where she is. Maybe her applications can wait until after her English essay is due. Maybe she is looking into schools that she thinks you may not approve of. Maybe she is overwhelmed and actually needs help. Let her communicate that with you, however, rather than deciding what she needs for her.

Don’t say, “Don’t write about that.”

Every year, there is a lot of buzz regarding which personal essay topics students should take on or avoid. When the message is, “Don’t write about that,” you are actually saying, “That part of you is not good enough.” Instead, the message should be, “Be who you are, and if the college doesn’t want you for who you are, then you don’t want to go there.”

Remember, this essay is personal and will possibly be your child’s most recent expression of who she is. Support that, or you run the risk that she will seek out that support elsewhere. Yes, you can explain etiquette if you believe she is truly revealing something that is inappropriate, but make sure you are not using manners as an excuse for manipulating her into writing about a topic other parents claim is more appealing to admissions officers.

Don’t say, “I hired a college advisor to get you into college.”

There is nothing wrong with hiring an advisor to help your child do some inner searching to figure out what colleges would be a good fit for her, if she agrees that this help would be a good idea. That, however, is different from hiring an advisor to “get” your child into college.

If you hire someone to do this for your child, you are saying that she is not capable of getting in without connections or assistance to put a “spin” on who she is. This can affect how she feels once she actually gets accepted. Did she get accepted, or did the fake person her college advisor created get accepted? Instead, explain that you want her to find a college that she likes and that also likes her for who she truly is, not who she can pretend to be on paper.

If your child does decide that she would like the help of a college counselor, ask her what kind of expectations she has for this relationship. Work together to find someone she will feel comfortable working with, and check in as they work together to make sure your child is happy with the guidance she receives.

Final Thoughts

If you allow your child to navigate through this journey, letting her know you are there for assistance if she decides she needs it, then when she gets an acceptance notification, she will know that she has gotten herself into college. She will know that the admissions officers at that college want her to attend, and therefore, that she will be able to succeed there.

This will leave her with a sense of accomplishment that will strengthen her ability to apply for future jobs, ask for future promotions, or pick future mates. So, next time your instinct is to take over, remember this may actually be one of your last opportunities to guide your child before she is officially an adult and on her own, and make sure that your actions are working toward creating a self-sufficient, confident, and accomplished student.

Noodle is here to help both you and your child get started on the college search process. You can browse different college profiles, create shareable lists of potential schools, and ask experts any questions you have .