A Parent’s Role in the College Admissions Process

Choosing which college to attend is most student’s first adult decision—with the process of applying to college a bridge between childhood and young adulthood. When students own the process, they discover what is important to them in their college experience, and that comes through in their college applications. In my experience guiding students through the admissions process, the best applications—and the best outcomes—occur when students are vested with ownership and parents are a sounding board and safety net for their students. So why do so many parents take the wheel instead?  What is the ideal role for parents to play in the college process?

In a recent book (and more recent companion workbook), The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, Brennan Barnard, a veteran college counselor, and Rick Clark, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech, offer thoughtful ways for parents and students to have frank conversations about applying to college, conversations that allow the process to unfold in a student-centered way.  In keeping with this approach, I recommend that all families discuss affordability at the start of the college process. Parents have the ultimate say-so about paying for college: they know their budget and it is better for students to build lists around it rather than be admitted to a college they are excited to attend, only to discover after-the-fact that it is not a financial fit. I have seen this happen—it is deeply disappointing for students to learn late in the process that they cannot attend a college where they have invested time applying and emotional energy imagining themselves.

Once affordability parameters have been established, parents need to cede control of the college research process to their students. Students need to know who they are and what their priorities are for their college experience—what are the “must have,” “must not have,” and “would be nice” criteria they are looking for in colleges? Parents can, of course, help their students by probing students’ priorities in thoughtful conversations, but parents cannot do the internal self-reflection or college research for their students. Colleges want to understand students’ vision for themselves as college students and how they will speak for themselves in and out of the classroom. When students do not lead the process of thinking about themselves and digging deep into colleges, they are not only unable to write compelling applications, but also stymied when trying to make a considered, adult decision about where to spend the next four years of their lives.

Parents who give their student responsibility for researching colleges and building a college list, either on their own or in conjunction with their school-based guidance counselor or an independent college counselor, are empowering their students on their journey toward adulting. Parents can support this process by taking students on college visits. (Here’s a pro tip: when visiting colleges, take different tours if possible!). And parents can also do companion research in areas that matter most to them and their child. For example, if a student prioritizes diversity, parents can delve into the Common Data Set and uncover details about enrollment by racial and ethnic categories. Of, if a student is considering medical school, parents can research the acceptance rate from colleges to medical school and what the colleges’ procedures are for supporting students in the medical school application process. Parents can provide this information to students, while still allowing students to decide how this information impacts whether a college is, or is not, a good match for them. Put simply, parents can provide insight into colleges, and feedback on college options, without making the list their own.

Parents can also help students understand that there are lots of wonderful colleges in the US (and internationally) and that the focus should be on finding colleges that are good matches. Parents should try not to focus on rankings or prestige—too often this gets in the way of students making smart decisions about which colleges align with their personality and priorities. In the frenzy (and fog) of college admissions families often forget that selectivity does not equate to a quality education.

When students own the college application process, they build their confidence and grow as young adults. The best gift parents can give their children is the room to navigate this journey, knowing that their parents are always there as scaffolding so nothing falls through the cracks.