Is there a college-bound senior in the house?
If so, you may feel the ground shifting beneath you. When this high school senior becomes a college freshman next year, it will be a transformative time. With so much riding on where students will end up attending college, it’s no wonder that the relationship between applicants and their parents can become strained.
In this article we’ll unpack some of what is happening in this dynamic–from the perspective of both parents and their children. Better still, we will share proven advice on how all parties can navigate this tricky, often emotional pathway to college, including:
For parents of applicants:
- How you can play a “best supporting role” in the process
- How today’s college admissions process is entirely different than when you applied a generation ago
- How to determine if your child needs a consultant
- What to look for in an admissions consultant
- How you can demonstrate maturity and independence as you research college options
- Reasons to avoid collecting too many outside opinions on your essays and instead, write in your own voice
- Demonstrate appreciation and respect for your parents during this process, which can be emotionally challenging for them
Let’s start by addressing parents, and how they can best play their parts.
Prepare for stormy weather
I know a mother who drove her daughter from the middle of Pennsylvania to Providence, Rhode Island to visit Brown University earlier this year. When they arrived, the daughter refused to get out of the car. “I don’t like the look of Providence. Get back on the highway,” she ordered. Perhaps you’ve experienced similarly baffling behavior from your child. What’s a parent to do?
Your child is facing a sea of change. At times this prospect turns 18-year-olds back into 2-year-olds, complete with tantrums. The prospect of independence both exhilarates and frightens them. Marie Todd, a longtime college consultant with Accepted, observes, “I think it is important for parents to take their childrens’ views into consideration. Probe further into the ‘why’ behind what both attracts and repels them from certain schools. This approach helps them to think more critically about the reasons behind their feelings and thoughts.”
Still, parents must set reasonable boundaries. At times, they may even need to employ the same guidelines they first used when their children were preschoolers, such as offering a set number of choices and establishing clear limits, whether financially, geographically, or in other areas. Setting guidelines and managing expectations will reduce the amount of tumult in your lives during the high-stakes aspect of the college admissions game.
Play a supporting role
Do not be a helicopter parent in the college application process. It’s not your ballgame. Marie Todd knows the damage that well-meaning parents can do if they are overinvolved. “If you become too intrusive, you can end up seriously damaging your children’s goals and growth,” she observes. “Admissions directors regularly complain about parents who write their children’s essays and may even try to sit in on interviews. The parents in effect forget that their children are the applicants, not them. They may even threaten lawsuits against a university that rejects their child or high schools that reveal factual but negative information, like bad grades, about applicants.”
As hard as it is to let your child take the lead (and possibly go in directions you don’t agree with), it’s the best route in the long run. “Ultimately if parents dominate the application process, they end up hindering their children’s chances of acceptance by demonstrating that they don’t believe their children are mature young adults ready to leave the nest. Furthermore, their lack of confidence hurts those kids, undercuts their self-confidence and willingness to take responsibility for themselves,” Todd continues.
It’s far better to start empowering your child throughout their high school experience. Allow them to take the lead and advocate for themselves. They will discover their strengths and learn to overcome challenges. You will still be there to help, but by taking a supporting role, you also demonstrate your confidence in their abilities to deal with things that come up in their lives. You will strengthen them by showing your confidence that even when they make mistakes, they will learn from them and use those lessons as a springboard to growth.
Recognize that this isn’t the college application process you remember
Since your college days 25 or 30 years ago, competition to get into college has stiffened, mainly at the top schools in the nation. While that may seem like bad news, the good news is that lots of schools can provide your son or daughter a top-notch education. You may have only applied to a handful of schools at most, confident in gaining acceptance to at least one or more. But brace yourself: Today it’s not uncommon for students to apply to more than 10 schools. As applications rise, admission rates at many schools are dropping into the single digit percentages. Many parents are shocked to discover that their straight-A children have been dinged by Stanford and are fighting to get into a good state university.
Many parents take rejection harder than their children will. If you really want to help your kids, be very careful not to project your desires and disappointments onto them. Any obsession with college rankings or their “star status” fuels the myth that is often embraced by upper-middle-class parents that if you don’t get into Harvard or Stanford, your chances of success in life will be greatly reduced. This is simply not true. At all. The world of colleges and universities is full of gems–your challenge is helping your high school senior find her gem and supporting her choice.
Marie Todd agrees. Having guided many hundreds of applicants to acceptance at fine colleges and universities across the country, she says, “The important thing is making a balanced college list that includes dream schools along with schools that your child is not only likely to get into, but even more importantly, are a good fit to help them achieve their goals.”
If it looks like taking all these suggestions into consideration requires a careful balancing act, you’re right. This is why it’s worth considering getting one-on-one, personalized assistance for your college applicant every step of the way. Accepted’s complete package is designed to enhance your student’s application by highlighting their strengths; selecting appropriate schools given their academic profiles and personalities; offering guidance and direction as they draft compelling stories; and comprehensive editing to polish and perfect them. Our consultants will make sure that essays display the character and skills of every applicant to best advantage. The money you spend will save you untold hours of time, anxiety, and possibly parent-child conflicts while ensuring that applicants will present themselves at their very best. But don’t take our word for it, read what our clients have said about Accepted.
How do I know if my child needs a consultant? It sure is expensive.
There are several good reasons to hire an admissions consultant for your graduating high school senior.
- If it’s your first time navigating the college application system, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. You also simply may not have the time to oversee the process or to offer useful guidance.
- You may worry that the high school college counselor will be spread too thin by the demands of other students and that your child won’t get the attention he or she requires.
- If your child is applying to colleges in the United States from abroad and you have little experience with the American higher education environment, you may feel lost or intimidated.
- Finally, as we have discussed, given all the tension of the teen years and the added emotional pressure of the application process, you and your child may be far better off if an expert third party provides professional, experienced guidance. In all of these situations, your child will benefit from working with an independent admissions consultant.
How do I know who’s good? What do I look for in an admissions consultant?
You and your child will work closely with this person for a few weeks at a minimum and perhaps for many months. This makes it vitally important to find a consultant who fits both your needs and your child’s style. Both you and your high school senior need to be comfortable with the relationship.
As a starting point in your search, the consultant you choose should have broad background knowledge and a commitment to continuing education about the college admissions process.
Yes, your next-door neighbor may have single-handedly walked her son through the admissions process and he got into Yale. She might have interesting insights to share, but a professional consultant has worked with dozens, if not hundreds of families with a variety of different admissions profiles. When good admissions consultants are not working directly with their clients, they are investing additional time reading, researching schools and programs, networking with colleagues, and visiting colleges. All this effort allows them to stay current with trends in admissions and changes in college programs and curricula that could affect applicants.
Beware of guarantees. An admissions consultant who “guarantees” acceptance to a specific college, promises “scholarship money” or agrees to write your child’s essays isn’t practicing ethical college counseling. Run the other way. Fast.
Several professional organizations, including the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC), and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) require their members to maintain a commitment to continuing education and professional development. Look for a consultant who demonstrates such a commitment.
Here are some important questions to ask when looking for “the one”:
- Is the consultant open to working with both applicants and parents while understanding that the applicant is the primary contact and client?
- Do you both feel comfortable asking the consultant questions?
- If you and/or your child prefer face-to-face meetings, is that an option? If you prefer email/Skype/Zoom only – is that an option? Are phone calls allowed?
You might find the right independent admissions counselor for your family in your neighborhood, in a different state, or on the other side of the globe. For many people it doesn’t matter where the consultant lives just so long as they “click” with you and with your child.
The Accepted difference
Here’s how Accepted consultants view their role in the application process: As applicants, your children must present themselves in the best possible light. We are here to help you and them identify college options that you might not have considered, help them portray themselves to full advantage, all while balancing the many moving parts of their senior year.
Our consultants do not write anybody’s application essay. They do act as a sounding board, helping your sons and daughters identify their voices and hone their impressive, distinctive, authentic messages.
They provide a seasoned, calm voice that will guide you and your children through the daunting admissions process while enhancing your students’ chances of acceptance. And since they don’t work with throngs of students at once, they’ll be able to answer the questions that your children’s high school counselor may not have the time to address.
By working with an Accepted consultant, each high school senior will apply confidently, navigate the application process with more calm, clarity, and confidence and emerge with a feeling of satisfaction. In fact, through this process they will have gone through a process of important self-discovery that will make them better prepared for the big changes to come when they begin college.
Okay, I get it. I’m ready to hire a consultant. What’s my job besides giving my credit card number?
Here’s how you as a caring parent can help smooth the path:
1. Allow your son or daughter to be the client
Your daughter is a young adult, spreading her wings to fly off to college, but she’s still under your roof, and you’re the one footing the bill for her consultant. So is she the client or are you? Well, both–but mostly it’s your daughter. She should feel like the essay is her project, that she and her consultant can develop a working relationship somewhat independent of you.
- What works: We encourage both parent and child to be involved in the free initial consultation. This provides a chance for both parent and child to share their perspective of the applicant’s profile and needs. After arranging payment, the parent then puts her child in contact with the consultant to begin the process, only entering the picture again as concerns arise or to check progress. In one particularly effective situation, a mother and daughter spoke with the consultant on the phone simultaneously about their expectations, concerns, and questions. Together, the consultant, mother, and daughter determined an approach and then the mother bowed out, leaving the rest of the responsibility to work with the consultant to her daughter.
- What doesn’t work: Some parents ask to be sent a copy of every email and draft that their child and their consultants exchange. While the request may sound reasonable at first, our consultants have found that the applicant often feels cramped and inhibited by the constant Parental Eye. When parents insist on communicating for their teen, sending drafts to the consultant and replying to questions directed to the applicant, such intervention removes ownership from the applicant. It can prevent a healthy dialogue from developing between applicant and consultant and in some cases prevents the applicant from sharing something personal that may be significant to discuss in the essay, but which they do not want their parents to see. Allow your children their privacy, and trust the consultant’s judgment regarding when the sharing of personal information crosses a line and becomes inappropriate or does not serve the applicant’s purpose.
2. Communicate Concerns Early and Openly
Remember that both you and your consultant are on the same side, working for your child to succeed. To streamline the process and facilitate the best outcome, share any concerns you have right away.
One of our consultants shared this story: “I once worked with an applicant whose parents watched the essay development process by monitoring all emails and drafts. Over the course of a month, the student writer and I spent hours on the phone brainstorming topics, determining the best one, and working out an outline. The applicant used the outline to write the first draft, and we worked through several more drafts. All the while, the parents remained silent. Then when we were putting finishing touches on the essay shortly before the deadline, the father contacted me to say he had concerns about his son’s topic, but was reluctant to talk to his son about it. Would I guide him in another direction? I couldn’t act as his mouthpiece when I didn’t agree with him; furthermore, I felt that he needed to talk to his son directly, not through me.”
Three-way communication can be tough, but talking openly helps establish and sustain trust. Regular communication can also help ensure that the writer stays on schedule, allotting enough time to write, revise, and polish an essay that reveals a vivid snapshot of the student’s life and values.
3. Recognize what makes a good essay topic
Parents often ask: What do admissions people want to hear? It’s an understandable but misguided question. Admissions officers want to hear the authentic voices of applicants, sharing something that’s important to them. Your Accepted consultant knows how to help your teen arrive at a topic that is personally meaningful, flesh out the topic, and write about it in a clear and thoughtful way. If you have concerns about the appropriateness of the topic, express them to your child’s consultant early on, but understand that the essay is your child’s to write. The applicants themselves must feel passionately about the topic for it to develop well. You may worry that your teen has chosen a controversial topic. Even if so, this is part of what makes your child unique and has informed his perspective about himself and the world around him. If this is a defining topic for your child, let it go.
Also keep in mind the adage “less is more.” As a parent, you’d like the world to know everything wonderful about your child, but the essay must focus on one theme. If your child and her consultant have determined that the essay should explore her summer work on the iguana farm, resist the temptation to suggest “just sticking in” a paragraph about the week you traveled as a family through Mongolia. That’s another essay. In most cases, applicants will have the opportunity to write about multiple topics based on additional essay requirements.
How do I know which service is best?
If your child is just beginning the process of writing a personal statement, the package approach is usually the most advisable. It allows her to work with her consultant for as long as necessary to get it right, without worrying about hourly charges. For those who choose the hourly service, keep in mind that each time a consultant works on a task for a client, she will include a detailed update showing how much time was used and on what service, as well as how much time remains. This way, the client can determine how to allocate their remaining time.
A word to college applicants
Now that we’ve spoken to the parents, we’ll conclude with some brief advice for the students.
Please try hard to understand your parents’ emotions
Your parents mean well and want the best for you. And we get it: Your senior year is tough, with the stresses of college applications piled on top of academic pressure and whatever else you have going on in your life. But remember that it’s tough for your parents also. Whether you are the baby of the family, the eldest, somewhere in between, or an only child, your parents are anticipating that you are soon leaving the nest. Part of them already misses you, worries about how you will transition to college life, and how the next four years will shape you. While they may secretly (or not so secretly) yearn to be able to slap a Princeton sticker on their car, they also understand that ultimately, the brand names of colleges don’t matter in the long run as much as the quality of education and the nature of the social environment you are going to join. Your parents are trying to balance all these conflicting feelings at this time.
So, what are you supposed to do about it?
Take responsibility for the decisions ahead
Don’t just groan about your parents running the show. Show some gumption. Take the lead in gathering information from your college counseling office, virtual tours of colleges, college guidebooks, and websites. Make sure to examine the stats to see where you are more realistically likely to get in. Take good notes about all the information you gather, including what you like and dislike about each school–a spreadsheet may be helpful here.
Think about what kind of school you’d like to attend: Would you feel more comfortable in a large school or a smaller one? Public or private school? If you’ve grown up in a warm climate, how well do you think you’d adapt to a cold region, or vice-versa? Traveling all the way across the country to come home for visits can be expensive, a hassle, and a drain on your time, so consider the distance from home as well.
While you should take the initiative in all this, include your parents in the process and tell them what you have learned. After all, they have a stake in the decision by helping to pay for your college tuition, housing, co-signing on college loan documents, and because the college experience will change you. When you do this research thoroughly and carefully, you will also demonstrate the maturity that will reassure your parents that you are nearly ready for this major transition.
Once you decide where to apply, look at the essay questions. Will you have to write one general personal statement, or several essays for each school? Take some time to prepare yourself by coming to the Accepted website where you can:
- Read sample essays
- Learn tips for writing winning essays
- Find help in choosing and approaching your recommenders
Speak for yourself in your essays
Don’t let your parents hijack your essay-writing responsibilities. Your essay can’t be their essay. In his book, On Writing the College Application Essay: Secrets of a Former Ivy League Admissions Officer, Harry Bauld points out the dangers of allowing parents to act as an essay guide: “One warning about parents. They may want you to ‘sell yourself,’ an approach that is dead wrong. Parents have their uses, but reading your college essay isn’t usually one of them. They care too much, and often don’t know quite enough.”
Similarly, Linda Abraham, founder and president of Accepted, cautions against seeking input from too many editors. You can drive yourself crazy by trying to follow the advice of English teachers, college counselors, friends, and parents. Sifting through so many opinions and trying to please every critic will almost certainly weaken your efforts, resulting in an essay that will not express who you are or what you want to say. Consider an Accepted consultant, an expert who can help you identify your topic, establish your authentic voice, write better and better drafts, and polish your writing till it shines.
The college application process can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be intimidating, nerve-wracking or the source of family tension. With an experienced Accepted consultant on your team, high school seniors and their parents will walk this admissions path together with confidence and calm. Click here to discoverBy Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!