A big thanks to Lisa Heffernan, founder of Grown and Flown, for contributing many of these tips.
Listen to the podcast episode where Ethan Sawyer and Lisa Heffernan explore these tips in greater detail and Lisa talks about why she started her website, Grown and flown.
YOUR GUIDE TO BEING THE WORLD’S BEST COLLEGE PARENT
The application process is different for every family, but here are 20 important things for parents to keep in mind while helping their children get into college.
1. EMPOWER YOUR STUDENT’S IDEAS FOR EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES.
Give yourself a break and let your student decide where to volunteer. Inspire him or her to go as far as they possibly can; your child doesn’t need to be the next Steve Jobs by senior year to get into a great school. Chances are, the more say your student has in where they volunteer, the easier it will be to get them out of bed on Saturday morning.
2. MOVE AT YOUR STUDENT’S PACE.
I know. When your son is sitting in front of the TV at 9pm on a random Thursday, you may be wondering, “Hey, why aren’t you working on your college applications?” But keep in mind that you may have a different sense of when work needs to begin and your alarm could be going off a little earlier than his. Rather than playing the role of taskmaster--Get to work!--invite your son on a walk, or out for coffee. Spend some time together. Ask questions. Get curious. Which reminds me:
3. THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR GOOD OLD-FASHIONED LISTENING.
This should probably be #1. Here are some active listening tips that I like (especially #8).
4. CONSIDER HIRING SOMEONE TO HELP.
You don’t have to do this on your own. If it feels like it might be nice to have someone to help with the process, see: Is Hiring a College Essay Coach a Good Idea? If you’re certain it’s a good idea, but want more info, go here.
5. COMBINE A COLLEGE TOUR WITH A VACATION.
Here’s a win-win: avoid a dull college tour AND save money by combining college visits with a family trip. To get you started: about 20 miles from Stanford is Big Basin State Park where you can hike, swim, and wander through one of the few old-growth redwood forests south of San Francisco.
6. ENCOURAGE YOUR STUDENT TO REACH OUT TO ADMISSIONS OFFICERS.
Not only will this build your child’s self-confidence and communication skills, but it’ll show the school “demonstrated interest,” which is something many schools track (in other words, many schools track how much concrete interest you’ve shown: Did you visit? Did you interview? etc.) Sure, it’s important for parents to stay informed, but it sends a poor message about your student’s motivation if admissions counselors only hear from a student’s parents. (Note that I underlined the words “your student” above.)
7. SUPPORT YOUR CHILD FINANCIALLY.
This doesn’t mean being your child’s piggy bank. Supporting your student financially means having your taxes done on time and putting your financial information into their hands, so that they can be equipped to apply for scholarships and fill out their FAFSA. Above all, stay informed and read about the Parent PLUS Loan, the most common parent loan option.
8. BE AWARE OF DEADLINES, BUT DON’T DRIVE YOURSELF CRAZY BY WORKING WAY AHEAD
Here’s a step-by-step guide to what should be happening when. You can even download it and print it out; just drag it to your desktop.
9. SEPARATE YOURS AND YOUR CHILD’S WORRIES
Part of the pressure that comes from the college process is our own pain at letting our kids go. From the start it helps if parents can be clear in their own mind about what parts of the pressure are their own feelings of sadness or anxiety and what it is their kids are actually experiencing. It is very easy to conflate the two.
10. FOCUS ON FINDING “BEST FIT” SCHOOLS
Instead of feeding your kid the canned line that there are thousands of good colleges “out there” focus on finding a school they really want to attend and are more than likely to be admitted. This can be tough sometimes, but once they have found that school, and better yet been admitted to that school, the pressure will be reduced.
11. BUILD BOUNDARIES AROUND WHEN AND WHAT KINDS OF COLLEGE DISCUSSIONS HAPPEN
Constrain, by mutual agreement, the amount of time that can be spent discussing college admissions every week at home and making sure that younger siblings, particularly if they are close in age, are not dragged into the discussion. This will make their process too lengthy.
Remember that much of what we know about colleges is 30 years out of date and grandparents can be more than half a century out of date. If we think about what changes in our world in 10 years it is easy to see why parents are lost. Forget old notions about schools and instead do good research with good sources and find experts to answer your questions. Even if you have an older kid, many things have changed. Don’t poison your kid with outdated notions on schools, applying and test taking.
12. FORGET EVERYTHING YOU LEARNED WHEN YOU APPLIED TO COLLEGE
Don’t wax on about how much easier it was to apply to college in the 80s or 90s. Your kid can’t time travel and this just increases their stress. All parent do this. Don’t.
13. DON’T START LOOKING AT COLLEGE TOO EARLY.
Kids need good grades, scores and activities they love. By starting college tours as early as 9th grade the subject of college hangs over their heads when it doesn’t need to be. The reality is that what they want and where they will apply changes so much that starting too early can waste time and increase stress. Parents should start looking and finances, scholarships, savings, costs early, but this does not need to involve the teen until 11th grade.
14. BE PATIENT
Kids change their minds and know that nothing is cast in stone until they confirm a school. Until they have accepted an offer of admittance, keep the conversation going and listen to what they are saying. This is a period of huge growth for many kids and the schools they were sure they loved early in the process may fade by the end.
15. BEWARE BAD COLLEGE ADMISSIONS ADVICE
There is real expert information on college admission to be found online and there is dangerous hype from parents who know no more than you do. Be very careful to distinguish between the two. We love to direct parents to some of the best blogs by college admissions officers, the people who actually admit students. They make for interesting and truly informative reading. Here is are a few college admissions blogs we love.
16. REMEMBER YOUR TOP PRIORITY
And what is your top priority? To empower and support your student through the process and remind them that you will love them no matter what. Ask yourself: does my child know my love is unconditional? Maybe. But throughout this process it helps to give lots of reminders. And hugs.
17. SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Remember that the process of applying to college is now much more competitive than when you applied. So cut your child some slack if they don’t get in to where they (or you) had hoped. One of the best ways to avoid disappointment is to work together to develop a balanced college list that includes three reach schools (1-24% chance), three maybe schools (25-75% chance), and three match schools (76% chance or better).
Here’s a tip: fall in love with all nine schools on the list, not just one or two at the top.
Here are a few comforting words on why your amazing son or daughter probably won’t get into Harvard.
18. REMEMBER IT’S THEIR COLLEGE EDUCATION, NOT YOURS
I know you know this. But sometimes you forget. (I forgot too sometimes when I was helping my younger brothers with their college essays.)
Remember to empower and support rather than micromanage their college essay writing process. A great book that I’m reading right now (in anticipation of my first child) is Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting. Amazing stuff.
19. INVEST YOUR TIME, NOT JUST YOUR MONEY
Abigail Van Buren once said, "If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them and half as much money." The university application process can be fun and can even bring you closer. So be a mentor rather than just an ATM. This might be the last year you live together. Which reminds me. Once your child is off to college...
20. LET GO
Don’t think like an empty-nester; think like someone who just got a lot of extra free time.