4 Ways Parents Can Help With College Applications

Father and daughter on computer

Parents may find it next to impossible to let their high school seniors go through the college application process without sitting beside them, ready to correct any errors they see or offer input on essays and short answer questions. Despite this impulse to get involved, in most cases it's far better for parents to let their burgeoning young adults manage their applications on their own, until assistance is requested.

Besides being an empowering and important step towards independence, the college application process requires patience, attention to detail, careful work and self-reflection (for essays), all important skills any student needs in college.

The steps in the application process and how parents should consider being involved in each of them are these:

Selecting where to apply.

After visiting campuses, both in real life and virtually, and deciding what is most important to them, students should make a list schools to apply to, with the appropriate number of safety, match and reach schools. Some will apply to 5, some will apply to 25, each with an application fee. These fees and other expenses need to be discussed with parents. Before applying, students need to take into consideration the expenses that will not be covered by financial aid, scholarships or loans, including transportation costs to and from home, off-campus housing (generally after freshman year), Greek life expenses, and cost of living in the towns or cities where schools are located.


What parents can do. Parents need to be honest with their young adults about what they can and will pay for when it comes to college expenses. Before applying to a school any school, whether around the corner or across the country, students need to understand the additional money needed to sustain them both on and off campus, and where that money will come from.

Filling out the applications

It may be tempting to help your high school senior fill out all of those applications, but don't do it. While the common application has streamlined the process dramatically - causing a big bump in the number of schools students apply to - there are still many schools that do not use it, and those applications need to be done one by one. Along with filling out the applications, students need to provide documents for each school, including SAT/ACT scores, high school transcripts, teacher recommendations, personal recommendations, letters of commendation, essays, art or performance samples (for creative majors), and possibly others, specific to certain schools. Along with keeping up with schoolwork and other commitments, filling out applications is practically a part-time job, which is why getting started in the summer - or as soon as possible - is a good idea.

What parents can do. Parents can help their student with applications is to create a spread sheet, check list or other document that can be used to track the student's progress school by school. Items to include on this list include things such as school name, deadline for applying, date applied, documents sent, and date received communication.

You can create whatever items you believe would be helpful to your particular child. Because this is an administrative task, it doesn't require your involvement in the application process. In return for you providing this valuable tool, it would be reasonable to ask your child for a weekly update on their progress. It will be far easier than asking every day, "How are you doing on your college apps?"

Writing the essays.

Students spend a lot of time coming up with a topic - or topics - for application essays. In some high schools, junior year english classes spend weeks discussing and considering ideas for these important pieces of writing. Though only 500-800 words in most cases, essays can make or break a student's application, especially for more competitive schools. These essays can be deeply personal, and parents need to take a big step away from their student's laptop and let them write whatever they want to.


What parents can do. If your high school senior comes to you to bounce ideas off of you and get feedback, you should certainly go ahead and share your thoughts - but don't say no to anything. If you are concerned about the execution and style of your student's essay, or if your student needs a bit of help with editing or brainstorming ideas, there are essay specialists available both online and in most cities and towns. If you are unable to find anyone using the internet or through friends, ask an english teacher at your child's high school - or even middle school - for help or ideas (offer to pay them for their time). If your child offers you the opportunity to read his essay, consider yourself fortunate. Many kids prefer to keep their essays private, and it's important for parents to respect that choice.

Choosing a college.

Once the acceptance - and rejection - notices have been received, the choice of where to go needs to be made by the student. For some, it's simple - early decision acceptances and early action options take the anxiety out of waiting until late March through early May for answers to come in. For the majority of students, however, there will be tough decisions to make, difficult rejections to come to terms with and acceptances that will be a great fit. After once more looking at the academic profile and being sure that the school will offer a major right for him, the student should then move on to other areas of college life that will play a big part in his success, from social life to housing, networking opportunities to professor accessibility.

What parents can do. First and foremost, parents must keep in mind that, financial considerations aside, this decision is the student's to make. While parents may have their heart set on their senior heading off to their alma mater or the school they once dreamed of going to, only the student can make the final choice. If possible, revisit schools where the student is accepted to compare and contrast the options.

In the end, though, the most important thing a parent can do is support the student's choice and always be available to listen, advise and be encouraging. Going to college is a huge change in a young adult's life.