How to Support Your Teen in the College Admissions Process

December 21, 2020

Back in 2012, a student at the University of Cincinnati won a restraining order against her parents for “stalking” her in college. They had installed spyware on their daughter’s phone and computer, regularly made unannounced visits by traveling over 600 miles to campus, and even met with her dean to accuse their daughter of promiscuity, doing drugs and having mental issues to the point where they were considering court intervention. In an age where the media has as many terms for overly-involved parents as the Eskimos have for snow (tiger moms, helicopter parents, wolf dads, etc.), this anecdote, sadly, hardly comes as a surprise.

Parents are unquestionably a critical component to a student’s college transition but it’s important to delineate what parental action is helpful and what may be detrimental in the admissions process.

What hurts

This section alone could end up longer than David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest (1,088 pages, and completely worth the read, by the way). Let’s try to cover the essentials in five bullet points:

1. Pushing too hard

Sometimes parents, swept up in the college admissions frenzy, push their children to take an excessive number of honors and AP courses. Rigor is great, but excessive rigor only leads to sleepless nights, anxiety, and a shortage of time to enjoy one’s high school days. Interestingly, one recent study by The University of North Carolina found that taking five AP courses led to increased college readiness, as evidenced by higher freshman GPAs. However, taking any more than five (some in the study took as many as 12) had no measurable effect on academic performance. Ultimately, it should be your student’s call as to what type of schedule they can handle while still maintaining sanity.

2. Getting obsessed with how your teen spends their summer

Don’t sweat the summers. Your child does not need to spend his/her vacation doing something absurdly original and highbrow. Running with wild boars in Paraguay or hang gliding over the Zambezi River will not win you any more points with admissions officers than volunteering at the SPCA down the street or working a cash register at 7-11.  Expensive summer programs at prestigious colleges and universities are likewise unnecessary expenditures that add little or no edge in the admissions game. Instead, students should focus on competitive summer programs and other jobs/activities that can offer admission benefits.

3. Over-focusing on a single prestigious school

Pushing a particular college on your child because you think it will be their golden ticket to the good life is not a helpful or realistic message in the college selection process. It’s vital to look at an undergraduate education as part of a bigger picture (for more on this topic consider picking up our critically-acclaimed college guidebook—The Enlightened College Applicant, available in paperback).  Championing a “University X or bust” mindset will only add undue stress to a student’s life. We also recommend picking up a copy of our new guidebook Colleges Worth Your Money, which will help expand your child’s college list to include more “good fit” institutions.

4. Taking over college tours

As a parent, you should resist the urge to open your mouth nonstop while on a college tour. If necessary, apply masking tape. This should be a forum for your son or daughter to ask questions—not you. Some filter-less parents can’t help but make inappropriate queries which result in an immediate mass eye roll from the rest of the group. It is not a good idea to ask questions about how your child’s allergies are handled or whether the tour guide can let the committee know that his SATs would have been higher if not for the death of his great aunt six months prior.

5. Emailing/calling the admissions staff on behalf of your son or daughter

Do not send crazy emails to the admissions office. We repeat: Do not send crazy emails to the admissions office. Let us answer every question ever sent by a parent right here in two simple sentences: Yes, they received your kid’s application and they will read it in due time. No, they do not need to hear your life story or your version of your kid’s life story to make an admissions decision.

What helps

1. Provide quality control

Think of yourself less as the manager of your child’s application process and more as the quality control inspector and deadline enforcer. Students are often self-motivated about their top-choice schools but sometimes get a bit lax formulating a backup plan. Parents should emphasize the importance of an academic safety school and also a financial safety school. It also helps to put together a timeline of when to submit applications and other important documents, such as transcripts, test scores, supporting materials, etc. If your child seeks to apply to more than a handful of colleges, you’ll quickly learn there are a lot of moving parts and it’s important to be well organized.

2. Go over post-secondary finances together

Speak candidly with your son or daughter about the financial realities of their college search. Don’t go into this process with an Enron-style business plan and assume that tuition money will fall out of the sky. Most teenagers have about as much financial sense as…well…Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Students absolutely need mom and dad’s help and guidance in this area. If loans are going to be part of the picture, parents should have a lengthy and number-driven conversation about how debt will impact young adulthood.

3. Encourage autonomy & student-ownership of the process

Actively encourage your student to take ownership of the admissions process. Here’s a brutally honest fact: Admissions offices cringe when they see emails from parents asking about the status of “our” application. Sooner or later, your child will be doing their own laundry, procuring their own meals, and hopefully learning to navigate the world successfully as a young adult. Let them start now.

CT’s Final thoughts

Parents should periodically take time to self-assess: am I appropriately-involved or overly-involved? It’s natural to cross boundaries with our children because we love them and want to give them every advantage in life that we possibly can. However, the first time we catch ourselves going overboard shouldn’t be when the police arrive at our door to deliver a restraining order.