How Much Should Parents Help With College Admissions?


Question: I'm the father of a rising high school senior and it seems that everywhere I turn, I find information advising the parents of college applicants to “back off and let students take the lead." But if I were to back off, my son — with his 3.98 GPA, top test scores, multiple unique extracurricular activities and elected offices — will do nothing. Trust me, I've tried putting him in charge and it hasn't worked. He says he definitely wants to go right to college after high school (no gap year) and I can see him thriving in a challenging environment like at MIT, Stanford or CalTech, but so far he hasn't done a single task related to college (registering for SATs, making a college list, attending regional fairs, even suggesting schools to visit) without my wife or me repeatedly reminding him. One of us will definitely have to keep track of all the deadlines this fall as he completes his applications. Am I really doing my son a disservice by helping? Aren't there other parents in my shoes?

Just because a teenager can ace AP Physics and run the Robotics Club doesn't mean that he will be proactive and organized when it's time to tackle the daunting and convoluted college admissions process. Over the years, “The Dean" has observed that there are titanic discrepancies between one child and the next when it comes to navigating the admissions maze. Some students have created college lists and requirements spreadsheets before the ink is dry on their PSAT scores, while others, like your son, will stick their heads in the sand (or at least under the covers) whenever they hear the “C" word. So no matter what the advice columns tell you, go with your gut. Don't write Junior's essay or ask every question at the information sessions, but do provide as much discussion as he'll tolerate and as much nudging as is necessary to keep him on task.

Over the years, I've noticed that many of the college admissions how-to articles for parents have been written by folks whose own children weren't aiming at (or qualified for) the most hyper-competitive institutions -- or even by those who had no children at all. In fact, “The Dean" was once a proud member of this latter group. When I first co-authored Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions in 1996, I wasn't a parent yet and had no plans to be. But Mother Nature clearly had alternate plans, so by the time I was revising the final edition in 2002, I was sending my son to kindergarten. And now that he is starting his senior year in college, I still stand by some of my earlier words of wisdom but cringe when I read others.

And one thing I've learned over these decades is that our progeny are not all the same (even those who grew up under the same roof) and there is often no one who knows better than Mom or Dad whether a college-bound child needs little more from them than a credit card for the application fees or, instead, a sounding board, secretary and drill sergeant. You — and not some admission dean behind a desk in a galaxy far, far away — are most likely to recognize if your child ...

- Created a college list that balances risk among “Reach," “Realistic" and “Safe" options.

- Homed in on places that should be affordable, whether due to need-based aid, anticipated merit aid or the flush family coffers.

- Is researching campus visits when possible. (Parental input is usually imperative when touring is on the table. You're probably better equipped than your son is to decide when you and your spouse can escape from work and where your Delta SkyMiles or Marriott Rewards points will go the farthest. But this can be an ideal time to introduce Junior to Trip Advisor and Travelocity as you map out your campus visits collaboratively.)

- Used essays, short-answer questions and activities lists appropriately to highlight strengths and achievements. (I've seen some students inflate the smallest accolades to nearly Nobel-Prize prominence while others may include “Dance-11 years" while leaving out “on Broadway!")

- Has a guidance counselor who is great, reasonably competent, inexperienced or downright awful (or non-existent) and thus whose advice should be heeded, considered or largely overlooked.

- Is submitting all mandatory materials and meeting deadlines.

While some 17-year-olds can do all of this alone, there are others who just aren't ready to take those reins. Many of the college advice articles for parents suggest that the mother or father who interferes now is not preparing a child for the self-reliance that college will soon necessitate. Oh, sure, I've seen plenty of freshmen who flounder, but this seems to have little to do with how independent they were when they tackled pre-college tasks. The same kid who is dawdling through his “Why Brown?" statement may have just coordinated a debate tournament for 24 high schools or snagged first place in a national science fair. There's just something about the college process — whether it's the understandable fear of taking next steps into the great beyond or the even more understandable annoyance of arcane application minutia — that can cause late-bloomers to wither and even their most accomplished peers to disengage.

So, as The Dean said at the start, trust your own instincts. Take the counsel from “experts" (besides “The Dean," of course ;-)) with a block of salt, and try to find that delicate balance between helping and helicoptering. In an otherwise forgettable film, The Descendants, George Clooney offered a memorable thought: “You give your children enough money to do something but not enough to do nothing." Well, similarly, when it comes to the college admissions process, you should offer sufficient assistance to ensure that your son won't be in his bedroom watching Westworld reruns while his friends are unpacking duffels in a dorm room, but don't take over so completely that, in the end, he feels that “his" college choice was really your choice.


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