A Parent’s Role in the College Admissions Process


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A few years back, a student at the University of Cincinnati won a restraining order against her parents for “stalking” her in college. They had installed spyware on their daughter’s phone and computer, regularly made unannounced visits by traveling over 600 miles to campus and repeatedly tried to schedule meetings with the dean to discuss every facet of their daughter’s life. In an age where the media has as many terms for overly-involved parents (tiger moms, helicopter parents, wolf dads, etc.) as the Eskimos have for snow, this anecdote, sadly, hardly comes as a surprise.

Parents are unquestionably a critical component to a student’s college transition, but it’s important to delineate what parental action is helpful and what may be detrimental in the admissions process.

What Hurts

1. Sometimes parents, swept up in the college admissions frenzy, push their children to take an excessive number of honors and advanced placement classes. Rigor is great, but excessive rigor only leads to sleepless nights, anxiety and a shortage of time to enjoy one’s high school days. It also may not help one’s admission prospects, at least according to a recent University of North Carolina study published in the summer 2013 Journal of College Admission that focused on the role of high school courses in the college admission process. Let your child ultimately make the call on what type of schedule he or she can handle while still maintaining sanity.

2. Don’t sweat the summers. Your child does not need to spend his or her vacation doing something absurdly original and highbrow. Running with wild boars in Paraguay or hang gliding over the Zambezi River will not win your child any more points with admissions officers than volunteering at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals down the street or working a cash register at a 7-Eleven convenience store.

3. Pushing a particular college on your child because you think it will be his or her golden ticket to the good life is not a helpful or realistic message in the college selection process. It’s vital to look at an undergraduate education as part of a bigger picture. Championing a “University-X-or-bust” mindset will only add undue stress to a student’s life.

What Helps

1. Think of yourself less as the manager of your child’s application process and more as the quality control inspector and deadline enforcer. Students are often self-motivated about their top-choice schools but sometimes get a bit lax formulating a backup plan. Parents should emphasize the importance of an academic safety school and also a financial safety school. 

2. Speak candidly with your teen about the financial realities of his or her college search. Don’t go into this process with an Enron-style business plan and assume that tuition money will fall out of the sky. Most teenagers have about as much financial sense as … well … Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Students absolutely need Mom and Dad’s help and guidance in this area. If loans are going to be part of the picture, parents should have a lengthy and numbers-driven conversation about how debt will impact young adulthood.

3. Actively encourage your student to take ownership of the admissions process. Here’s a brutally honest fact: Admissions professionals cringe when they see emails from parents asking about the status of “our” application. Sooner or later, your child will be doing his or her own laundry, procuring his or her own meals, and hopefully learning to navigate the world successfully as a young adult. Let that start now.

Final Thoughts

Parents should periodically take time to self-assess. Are you appropriately or overly involved? It’s natural to cross boundaries with children because we love them and want to give them every advantage in life that we possibly can. However, the first time we catch ourselves going overboard shouldn’t be when the police arrive at our door to deliver a restraining order.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. Learn more at collegetransitions.com.

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