The college search involves a lot of people: students, their school counselors, test prep tutors, parents and others. Despite best intentions, sometimes parents try to help a little too much, and it can make the college application process more stressful than necessary. All too often, counselors and admission officers see some well-intentioned parents make mistakes in the college admissions process.
College Confidential spoke with school counselors and admissions staffers to get a feel for some of their biggest parental pet peeves, as well as some best practices that can guide parents as they navigate the application process.
Counselors Examine Parental Practices
One of the telltale signs that parents are too involved is that they use the word "we" when referring to the college admission decisions, counselors say. According to Nina Berler, college counselor at the Hudson School in Hoboken, N.J., and founder of UnCommon Apps, these parents say things like, "We are submitting tonight." They get their student's password and they may even go to student orientation when it's all done, Berler says.
Oftentimes, some parents try to over-prepare for applying to college, and it can cause hiccups in the process. Beth Doane, school counselor at Yarmouth High School in Yarmouth, Maine, recommends that parents don't set up a Common Application account for their son or daughter because when the guidance counselor meets with students who don't know their login, "it can be frustrating."
"When the Common Application becomes available on Aug. 1, we know this is an exciting time for parents and students, so please let the student set up his own Common App account with their login and password. They will be working with the school counselor to complete various sections of the Common App and they will need to log in on their own as well, so it's very important that they have their own unique login and password information accessible," explains Doane.
Doane also says she has had parents set up accounts in their own names so they can access their sons' and daughters' scores, which she says complicates everything.
"It would be helpful if, when the students take their first PSATs, that they set up their own College Board accounts," Doane advises. "They will need this personal login to not only access their PSAT scores, but to log into Khan Academy to practice, register for SATs, and access AP scores. So parents, please don't set up an account for your child."
Telltale Signs Indicate Parental Essay "Help"
Berler says that her biggest pet peeve is when she can tell that parents have worked on college essays. "My students trust me advising them about essays and reviewing their essays," she notes. "And whether students share a doc with me or invite me as a recommender (a wonderful feature in which a counselor can preview only), I know when the parent has struck! The essays use words and phrases that no 17-year-old would choose (e.g., remuneration). There are two spaces between sentences. There is jargon. Instead of telling a story, the essay reads like — or changes into — a LinkedIn profile."
Berler says that when she works with students and parents, they sit through a meeting to discuss essays and students writing in an authentic voice. However, if a parent has modified an essay, it is not in the student's best interest. "I tell them that if I can tell, an admissions officer can tell, too," notes Berler.
Work with Your School Counselor
Many families hire independent college counselors, but remember to also use your high school counselors as resources in the admissions process as much as possible, Doane says.
"We are here to support, guide and answer your questions as either first-time parents going through the process or a veteran parent," she says. "As guidance counselors, we have been working with your sons and daughters for four years, celebrating their achievements and supporting them through their struggles ... we know them well."
She notes that school counselors conduct college searches, and along with English teachers, they help with college essays. This means that hiring an independent counselor is not imperative for most students. "Ultimately, we are the one to support them through our recommendation and school report we send to colleges. We know as parents, you're worried and might not know where to start, the place to start is by making an appointment or picking up the phone and calling us, your child's counselor who is also in constant contact with the admissions representatives who visit our school and with whom we can advocate for your son or daughter through this process."
Admission Officers Unveil Their Parental Pet Peeves
Like school counselors, admission officers also face frustrations with parents during the college admission process. One pet peeve is that parents sometimes still treat their children like minors once they are 18 and about to enroll in college (or already enrolled). For example, students must sign a FERPA waiver to give parents certain rights to their education records.
"One time, a father came in to complain that his son only gave the mother a FERPA waiver and he wanted me to 'correct' this. It is understandable when a parent wants to stay informed about his or her child while in college. Parents must understand, however, that a child is considered an adult in college and, as such, reserves the right to release that information -- or not," explains Richard O'Rourke, associate director of admissions at The University of Illinois at Chicago.
Because it can be confusing for parents about what they should and should not do in the college admissions process, Scott E. Steinberg, vice president of university admissions at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, offers these "to do" and "don't" tips to parents:
- DO partner appropriately with your child during the college search process. "I suggest a 'divide and conquer' approach, so that both students and parents have appropriate skin in the game. For example, in planning visits to colleges, students might take the lead in making admissions arrangements for tours, information sessions and admissions interviews. The parent might take the lead in travel arrangements."
- DO have a night on/night off policy at home for discussing the college admissions process with your child. "From both personal and professional experience, I'm aware that the admissions process can consume inordinate amounts of time at home. Have a designated night each week when student and parent can talk freely and openly about the admissions and applications process. This might be a time to discuss — for example — the status of admissions and financial aid applications. Just as important, however, have a night off each week when this discussion is off the table. (Parents, you'll be reminded of how many other things are going on in your kids' lives!)"
- DON'T take over the admissions process from your child. Parents should be there to support the process for their children, not run it for them. (Parents should, however, be active in seeking and applying for financial aid.)
- DON'T contact the admissions office on behalf of your child for things they should really be doing themselves. Examples would include scheduling campus visits, tours and interviews, and asking questions about the admissions application.
- DON'T write a recommendation for your student.
- DON'T ask the same question over and over again, expecting the answer to change (appealing an admission decision, for example.)