Applying to College: What’s a Parent to Do?

The college preparation process has become a complicated, high pressure affair. It can be overwhelming for student and parents alike. The college application process alone is a multi-phased, multi-task effort for which, I believe, most 16 and 17 year olds are not yet developmentally ready.

There is so much to do and so much at stake. In order to do the applications properly, optimally, most high schoolers need help. Knowing how and how much to help your child is challenging for parents. If you do too little, your child is overwhelmed and miserable and may end up with poor choices. If you do too much, your child is overwhelmed and miserable and may end up with your choices, which to them is worse than their own poor ones!

And so I am offering the following guidelines to assist you in your efforts to get through this process with your child’s applications (and your relationship) beautifully intact.

Remember that this process is to get your child into the college or colleges that he wants to attend. Ideally, at the end of the process, you want your child to have choices that she is happy with. When I speak in workshops, I often hear parents say that they had to completely take over the process because:
1. Their child was not “taking care of business”; or
2. Their child did not know what he wanted; or
3. The parent and child did not agree on the child’s choices.

Again, these are often manifestations of an overwhelmed child, who feels immobilized by the tasks at hand and therefore, either checks out of the process or makes hasty decisions just to get through it.

When a parent completely takes over the process, many problems occur. Firstly, college admissions officers do not want an application from a parent. They are experts at knowing when an essay is written by a 40 year old parent versus an 18 year old student! And so you do a disservice to your child by doing that for them. Secondly, when a parent takes over the entire application process, often the child feels that their power to choose their future is usurped (once again) by their parent. And then the parent is angry because they “know” that the child wouldn’t even have choices if the applications were left to them!

So I recommend that parents view themselves as managers of the process. Wikipedia’s definition of “management” includes “planning, organizing, leading or directing, and controlling a….person toward accomplishing a goal.” This is a perfect breakdown for what parents need to do during the college application process.


During the planning process, which can start as early as your child’s freshman year in high school, I recommend that you be in charge of gathering the materials. These would include college information, applications, scholarship information and applications, etc. Any official documents. You do not have to actually do the gathering yourself. If you want to require your child to do it, you must micro-manage this part because it is too important. When I say micro-manage, I mean you have to tell them what to do and when to do it (e.g. “Please find all of the websites for the list of schools we discussed and put them in the Favorites file on the computer. I need this done by Saturday”).

I also recommend that you handle the money. I am referring to all of the financial aid and scholarship information. Since the process of attaining financial assistance so heavily involves your financial information –such as income and tax information—you might as well be in charge of it. If you are pursuing financial aid, you cannot afford to let the details of this fall through the cracks. Those deadlines come early.


Set up a timetable with your child so that you both understand the time requirements and constraints you have. I recommend sitting down with your child with a big desk calendar and writing in all of those application due dates. This is the best way to get on the same page about what needs to be done. Make sure that the calendar continues to be a part of your activities. Update and refer to it often to stay on track.

Create a separate space for your application materials. You can use a separate table or desk, a dedicated shelf, or anywhere that you can leave materials (like applications you are working on) and they will remain undisturbed until you get back to them. Inform your child that any college material that comes home from the school counselor or in the mail regarding colleges or scholarships should always go in the dedicated area immediately. This way you know where everything is.

Develop a method of reminders. At the beginning of your planning, discuss with your child how you are going to remind him or her about his or her tasks. If you both agree on a method, then you can’t be accused of nagging. For example, you can say “I am going to send you a reminder email every Friday that lists what you need to get done the next week. And I want you to email a reply as soon as the tasks are done.” If you don’t want your student to wait until the last minute to act, don’t wait until the last minute to remind them.


Set Forth a Clear Priority and enforce it. This is the hard part of parenting. If your primary goal is to be your child’s best friend, you are going to have difficulty with this part. Children need direction (even at 16, 17, 18 years old). You are doing them an enormous favor by helping them get these applications completed in an organized manner. For this short period in their young lives, this must be a priority. So if they have a application deadline next week and their school schedule is so demanding that they only have time on the weekend to work on it, you, as the parent, have to say “no parties, no movies, no hanging out until the application is done.” You must be the parent now. You’ll be their new best friend when they get accepted! Maybe!


Control the process. With your calendar and your method of reminders in place, your goal is to stay on top of paperwork, stick with your plan and control what’s happening. You do not want to feel like you are chasing deadlines and barely keeping up. Remind your child that discipline is freedom. The earlier she completes the applications, the sooner she will be free to enjoy her senior year.

Acknowledge the stress. There is no avoiding the stress of this time period. Your child is stressed and you are stressed. No matter how organized you are, your student has to go to school and deal with the pressure of peers and teachers, who are all involved in this college process. The kids are all talking about their applications and their crazy parents and whether or not they will get into a college at all. Teachers are telling them how important their grades are for college. And SAT’s are looming. Add this to the regular stressors of just being a teenager and you’ve got one stressed-out child.

When they come home, they do not need their parent’s stress added to the equation. So I encourage you to keep your stress to yourself. I recommend this as a general rule, but especially during this college application time. Saying “if you don’t get it together, you are not going to get admitted anywhere!” is not an effective motivator! Likely, your child is already feeling that fear of failure and it is the likely cause of his inaction. He needs your vote of confidence, not your criticism right now.


I know it is not helpful to tell parents to relax when they have reason to be worried. Instead, I’d like to share some truths with you. I’d like you to say them to yourself as many times as you need to. Repeat after me:
There are many colleges that are perfect for my child.My child will get into college.
There are many colleges that are perfect for my child.My child will get into college.
There are many colleges that are perfect for my child.My child will get into college.

[Exerpt from Panel presentation at Linda Lorelle College Prep. Conference, Houston, Texas, January, 2008]



  1. I agree with your recommendations and guidelines for parents during the college application process. Create a plan and then make them stick to it. But, taking this to the next level, many parents worry that their children won't get in to the colleges they apply to.

    Besides GPAs and SAT/ACT scores, colleges want to see students show their curiosity, drive, and leadership skills. Encourage your child to do a project. College admissions committees are impressed by accomplishments that students achieve on their own — something that wasn't required of them. Check out ProjectMERIT (

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