It's not news to anyone that the college application process can be a stressful one, but it's something parents can be especially aware of. Family members can be the biggest cheerleaders for the kids in their life going through the process, but sometimes they don't know how -- or how much -- to be involved.
Parents often hold back because they feel shaky themselves on the admission process or feel that applying to college is an important rite of passage that students do all on their own. Others feel their best role is to act as hand-holder or drill sergeant, putting their kids through their college application paces.
I'm here to tell you that there is (fortunately) a happy medium. Parents and other family members can be a huge support to students by offering both moral and logistical support in tackling that long list of college application tasks. Build up morale by offering to take your child on college tours and to visit college fairs. Help them research and compare colleges. Don't be afraid to ask lots of questions.
When it comes to college conversations, my six biggest tips are as follows:
1. Set some ground rules. Parents must get their own college worries in check before broaching these weighty topics with students. You want conversations to be positive and productive. Your kids are going to take their cues from you about how to approach the college admission process. You don't have to be perfect, but when you sense yourself losing your perspective, revert back to setting good examples.
2. Start early. This is the most popular piece of advice given by parents who have gone through the process. (About 50 percent of respondents to our annual College Hopes & Worries survey say this). Planning ahead won't just set your child up to succeed, it will actually make the process so much less stressful.
3. Help students find balance. It's possible to be too focused on getting into college. We all want our children and students to care about their futures. But if they make every decision based on how it will look to colleges, they're trying to game the system rather than follow their own interests. That never works in college admissions, and it doesn't make for a happy, confident kid, either. Help your student separate college planning from other parts of their lives while also finding a balance between the two.
4. Create a rock-solid support system. There's a reason you don't ask your doctor to do your taxes or your accountant to diagnose your knee pain. Go to the right sources. Your child's high school counselor, colleges' websites, college guidebooks, admission officers, representatives at college fairs and students who attend the schools are good sources.
5. Help your child figure out the college atmosphere that will let them thrive — academically, personally, socially and financially. This all goes back to “best fit colleges," which I discuss in detail in The Best 385 Colleges. You're looking for the schools that will fit your student to a T. You know your child best but be patient as they work through the journey. Communicate your opinions but be open to negotiating and compromising. That being said, do talk about finances and college costs early on, and make sure a financial safety school makes it on their list.
6. Ask your student “What's the best way for me to help you?" Parents who deliver meticulously organized file folders with college lists and typed-up college essays to their teen's door are likely to be met with more than a few eye rolls. (It goes without saying that parents should never write their child's essays or fill out applications for them.) Let your child take the reins on certain pieces of the process and slowly gain more and more responsibility. Your role is to help them strategize, divide and conquer.
Above all, remember that this is the first major project your child is going to undertake with no final grade and no teacher leading the way.