The View from the Bleachers: The Parents' Role in the College Process

Time and time again parents sit in our office and reflect, “I don’t remember it being like this when I applied to college” and, indeed, the process has changed in some important ways over the past few decades. More colleges are making standardized testing optional, students are sending out more applications, and admissions is becoming increasingly competitive. As this process becomes increasingly complex and, unfortunately, increasingly stressful, there are several things parents can do to help their child make this a more rewarding and successful experience.

1. Applying to college is probably the longest, most involved, and most important decision your child has ever had to make. Start the process early so they’ll have plenty of time and space to consider thei choices. Recognize the emotional toll this process can take - this isn’t just about going off to college; it’s about adjusting to routines that are completely unfamiliar in a place that is largely unknown where there may be few friends or family nearby. Almost everything in their lives will be different, and that’s a lot to think about.

2. Colleges offer some very enticing options including made to order stir-fry in the dining hall, dorm suites with full kitchens, athletic centers with climbing walls, and free cable television. With all this sparkle and shine students can easily be distracted from focusing on what should be the most important part of their college experience – the academic program. Help your child assess the breadth and depth of courses offered in their intended major and the academic rigor at each college. Keep the appropriateness of the academic fit at the center of the decision-making process.

3. Understand how your child learns, makes decisions, and processes information and play to their strengths while helping them to develop the decision-making skills they need. If your child focuses on the physical aspects of the campus, point out how engaged students seem to be in class. If your child benefits from knowing ahead of time what they are going to see, spend time with them on the colleges' websites and reading guidebooks before stepping onto a campus. If your child tends to be impulsive, have them create lists of the pros and cons of each school to think through their decision more deeply.

4. Trust your child’s impressions of a college, even if yours are different. Perhaps you are aware of the Mosquito Sound, a very high pitch that high school students can hear but adults can’t. In the same way, teenagers pick up vibes that we are no longer receptive to but which exist none-the-less.  Don’t be dismissive of your child’s observations, but ask them to explain what they saw or heard that made them arrive at these conclusions.

5. Help your child to understand that there is no one right answer, only a best guess when it comes to choosing which colleges to apply to and where, ultimately, to matriculate. This is probably the first significant leap-of-faith decision your child has ever made and that can feel very scary. Talk to them about how times when you've had to make similar leap-of-faith decisions and how you did it.

6. View the process of applying to college as just that – a process. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and each child will go through the process in their own way and in their own time, hopefully taking on increasing responsibility and ownership. Ultimately, this is not just about “getting in”, but about developing self-awareness, clarifying personal values, and becoming self-sufficient and self-directed. When parents become too involved, the student is denied the chance to go through this very maturing, self-actualizing process.

First row seats don’t always provide the best view at sporting events or in life, and sometimes the best place to watch your child go through this process is from the bleachers. Try to be far enough back to get have a broad perspective.