Parenting Through 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.  More colleges are making standardized testing optional, admissions is increasingly competitive, students are completing more applications, and parents are more involved in the process than ever before.  For parents of college bound students, we offer these words of advice to help make the college process more successful and rewarding:

  • Focus on Fit: Help your student remember that college is first and foremost about the academic experience.  Colleges offer some very enticing options including gourmet food options, dorm suites outfitted with full kitchens, athletic centers featuring state-of-the-art equipment, and cyber-cafes at every turn.  All this is can distract from what should be at the center of their college experience – the academic program.  Help your student assess the quality, breadth, and depth of the curriculum and the level of academic rigor and type of academic support.
  • Accommodate your student’s style: If your student has been a procrastinator for 17 years, the college process isn’t going to draw out Type A qualities.  Know your student’s strengths and weaknesses and proceed accordingly.  If he is disorganized, set up organizational systems.  If time management is a struggle, set up timetables.  If visiting a lot of colleges will be overwhelming, limit the search.  Learning and behavioral styles are hard to change, so play to your student’s strengths and support their areas of weakness throughout the process.
  • Keep your student’s needs primary: Remember, you are not the college applicant.  While your college years may have been the best of your life, that doesn’t mean that your alma mater is perfect for your student.  Support your student’s decision about which college is the best place for them to spend their undergraduate years and avoid the temptation to compare it to “your college.”
  • Listen more, listen better: Starting sentences with “Tell me what you think about …” rather than “I think that…” will encourage your student to open up and will also send the message that you trust and value their opinions. While there are certainly times when a parent should share their perspectives, doing so too often is more likely to shut down conversation than to encourage honest dialog.
  • Allow plenty of time: Applying to college is probably the longest, most involved, and most difficult decision your student has ever had to make. There is also a very complex emotional component to this process – your student is leaving the comfort of school, friends, and family to venture into a world filled with unknowns.  Give them plenty of time and space to research and evaluate the tangible and intangible components of their decision.
  • Focus on the process:  The process of applying to college as just that – a process.  It has a beginning, middle, and an end and each student will go through the process in their own way, 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 values, and becoming self-sufficient.  When parents become too involved, the student loses the opportunity to go through this very maturing, self-actualizing process.
  • Don’t be afraid to be a spectator: First row seats don’t always provide the greatest view. Sometimes the best place to be is cheering from the bleachers.

The college process provides a unique opportunity in your student’s life to look back and be proud of what they’ve accomplished, think about who they are, articulate what they value, and consider where they want to go from here. Don’t rush the process to get to the finish line – this is an opportunity you may not have again to teach your student many important life lessons. And, just as you will come to know your child better, so too will they come to better know you.