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Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

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This week's question from Vanessa K., Boise, ID asks:

“How can parents help students with the college search and application process?"

“I wish they’d remember I’m the one going, not them”

Rebecca Joseph | Executive Director & Founder
I hear this plea often, so parents remember college is your gift to your child. So help but don’t control the process. Help organize their application and financial aid requirements with a real and virtual filing system for all college communications.  Coordinate college visits as they affect your child’s view of a college and chance of acceptance. Use NAVIANCE’s amazing resources. If your school doesn’t use that, help develop and post an excel chart of all requirements—application, essays, and financial aid. And finally, make sure your child finishes senior year strong. Senioritis often derails many college dreams. 

Advice for parent participating in their student's college admission process

Michael Goran | Director & Educational Consultant
The best thing parents can do to aid their students in successfully navigating the college admissions process is to allow students to take ownership of the process!  This encouragement allows students to engage, to become more informed, to gain confidence and to instill independence for college.  Parental encouragement can extend to diverse activities like helping their student define their strengths for college applications, suggesting time management mechanisms, and acting as a sounding board when considering the development of a college list.  Taking students to visit colleges is perhaps the most obvious way parents can help students in the process.

Assist students in developing their personal criteria for college

Lynette Mathews | Director
The first step in a good college search and match is a strong understanding of self.  Parents can assist students in this area by exposing them to colleges with various environments, locations, academic programs, and student bodies.  During campus visits, parents should ask their student what they think, before offering their own opinion, and really engage students in discussions.   If a family has financial constraints related to college, parents are wise to discuss openly with students so cost can become a component of the decision process.  Once a student develops their personal preferences or Key College Criteria, creating a list of good match schools becomes easy! 

Campus visit in the eyes of the parent…invaluable

Pamela Ellis | Founder
Parents can play a strong, supportive role in the college search process through making travel arrangements for campus visits and escorting their student on those visits. In making the travel arrangements for campus visits, parents can handle all plans with the exception of contacting the admissions office for an interview. It is best if the college-bound student makes the call and demonstrates their interest to the admissions staff. Parents offer a great perspective of the campus when they accompany their student on visits. Parents can also tour another department, attend different presentation, and exchange notes later with their student.

Complete taxes early for Federal Aid

As a parent, one easy way to give your child an advantage in the college application process is to file your taxes early. The forms required to apply for federal financial aid include parent’s tax returns in order to be complete. Because the money awarded by the government is a finite amount, those who apply early have a better chance of receiving aid. This is particularly important advice for middle- and low-income families.

Empower your children; be supportive rather than directing them

Susan Smith | Educational Consultant
Parents who empower their children give them gifts that build self-esteem and create ownership. Discussions about money, distance, etc. should occur before the lists are generated; upon research by the students, parents should review the selections with their children and make college visit arrangements, as they are usually driving. After the students complete the applications and write the essays, parents should proof them for spelling and grammatical errors and any additional editing needed. When the decisions come in, parents need to listen to their children as they process the results, and remember who is attending college. Be supportive, not directive.

Five things parents can do to help with college admissions

Marjorie Shaevitz | Author & Founder
It’s not easy for parents to know if they are doing too much or too little re: their child’s college admissions. A little advice about testing is a good start. 1) Become educated about the various tests. 2) Remind your student about test registration deadlines and test dates; put them on a visible family calendar. 3) Help him/her complete the test registration forms. 4) If it fits your budget, pay for test prep books or tutoring. 5) Provide your child with chauffeur services on the day of a test so he/she doesn’t have to locate the test center and find a parking space.

Give them space: talk less, listen more, and respect their privacy

Carol Morris | Regional Director of Admissions
Parents, while you are probably fascinated by the subject, if you discuss college issues at every opportunity, most students will shut down and tune you out altogether. They are already anxious about admission, career prospects, leaving boy- or girlfriends, and more, so your gentlest references to next year may feel like bulldozers to the student. Pick a set time, once a week perhaps, and promise to confine your questions to that period (they are allowed to bring it up anytime they like.)  Also, do NOT share details of your child's scores, grades, application choices, etc. with friends and relatives without their express permission to do so!

Help your child "imagine" college

Philip Ballinger | Director of Admissions & Assistant VP of Enrollment
Before all else, I think parents can best assist their children in the college search process by helping them ‘imagine’ college.  Students are bombarded by all sorts of external factors – marketing material, peer influence, public perceptions, etc.  They can easily give short shrift to their own imagination, hopes, and unspoken expectations.  Parents can help their kids turn inward a bit by asking them how they imagine college.  Questions like, “When you imagine college, what is it like?  What are you doing?  What are the students around you like?” “How do you want to change or what do you want to happen for you in college.”  Parents should make the search process truly personal for their child.

Helpful reminders to parents

Scott White | Director of Guidance
Some things for parents to keep in mind: make sure financial aid deadlines are not missed; gather and organize financial documents prior to the beginning of the student’s senior year; let the child know you are there if needed; stay out of the way.

Helping research costs, scholarship and grant potential by college

Ralph Becker | Owner & Director
One way that parents can help is by determining the costs of the various colleges and clearly calculating what is affordable, and what scholarship and grant money would be needed to be able to attend. The costs, scholarship and grant information for most colleges can be found at College Navigator, which is a government site. Additionally, setting preliminary budgets with their students would be invaluable in helping the students gain command over their finances (this lesson alone is worth the price of an education). Moreover, discovering alternatives to private loans (especially Parent PLUS Loans) would be very helpful.

How to keep kids on task without nagging

Jolyn Brand | Founder & Director
Parents need to involve students in scheduling and planning out projects, whether these are science fairs or college applications. With a calendar and a to-do list, sit down with the child to discuss the goals, deadlines and when they have time to complete the tasks. This helps teach them executive functioning, skills they will need for the rest of their life. Print a free calendar online and write out each step, how long it will take, when it should be completed and leave some time for unexpected issues or problems. There should also be a set time/day for “check-ins” about the progress, which prevents nagging or students who feel too “busy”.

Let your student take on responsibility

Nola Lynch | Owner
As parents, your most important role in the college search and application process is to support your teen. The more you can hand over responsibility to your emerging adult, the better you will feel when he or she goes off to school without you. You will have to do the financial aid portion of the process, so stay on top of deadlines. The student should handle most contact with the schools and should complete the applications, but you can be available to advise and proofread. Ideally, the student will feel motivated to move forward and take ownership of the process.

Make sure your child's list is realistic

Patti Demoff | Co-Founder
Providing emotional support is as important as the organizational and technical support parents can give during the admission process. By helping to identify and visit appropriate colleges, parents will go a long way to insuring a positive outcome. Assist in formulating a realistic list including colleges that the student is likely to get into and will be happy attending. While it might be your personal philosophy to “shoot for the stars,” this approach usually ends in disappointment. Demonstrate that you are proud of your child’s accomplishments and don’t let your expectations add to the stress the student is already feeling.

Navigating the fine line: too intrusive, or not involved enough

Estelle Meskin | Certified Educational Planner
This is an important time in your child's life as he/she seeks independence and becomes an adult. Planning for college is an ideal way to begin the process.  Some tips to make the process more beneficial for parents and child:  Do not direct.  Let the student take ownership of the process and set the timetable. Be supportive and caring. Don't be a nag. Set limits at the beginning so there are no surprises. Make college visits together. Be honest and optimistic. Consider hiring an educational consultant who is knowledgeable and objective who can guide the child while assisting parents to be realistic.

Parent playing supporting role in college search is important

Kevin Witham | Sr. Associate Director of Admissions
The parent or mentor should help identify useful websites, application deadlines and dates available for campus visits and have the student make arrangements.  The parent and student can each write down expectations of college choice and experience.  The expectation list could be used as a starting point for open dialogue about college choice, desires, costs/investment and more. This tool along with identifying pros and cons of an institution can also help the student in the future when making other life choices. With these and other techniques the parent is engaged with the process by providing useful tools to the student yet allows the student to make choices and identify the key factors that might influence their college choice. 

Parent's do's and don’ts

Jeannie Borin | Founder & President
The college admission process should be somewhat of a passage from childhood to adulthood. Parents should assist with some organization, give encouragement, make suggestions and support their child. Reward their accomplishments but allow your child to take ownership of their college process. Parents can plan college visits, call financial aid offices to learn of opportunities and be a sounding board for their child’s concerns. Listen and read their college essays (if they let you) and give constructive advice. If a college admission office needs to be called, the student should do it. The college process helps prepare students for the independence they will have when they are in college. 

Parents and students must make college selection a family activity

Charles Moore | Director, Enrollment, IT & Student Services
The college checklist is a form the student and parents design together with the ten most important questions about colleges in general (cost, admissions standards, location, major availability, etc.) developed through dialogue and realistic assessment of the family’s financial or other considerations.  This checklist will be divided into two sections: Required and Non-Essential Benefits.  Under the Required section, the most important considerations will be ranked and given point assignments with a total of 100 combined points possible. This checklist will be used to “rate” all possible college choices.

Parents can be helpful by not becoming too involved

Wynne Curry | College Advisor
Students need encouragement at every step to take ownership of the process and to move forward about what he or she wants in terms of a campus community. Students need time to be circumspect about what their needs will be in a brand new community and too often, the eager parent will hurry the clock in order to appease his or her own anxiety. Adolescents have a very different notion of time than grown adults do, and pressing them at this important juncture can be counter-productive. If a student is dragging his feet, it’s time for either the parent or guidance counselor to sit down with the student and see what is on their mind.

Parents need to be in the know, but not on the do

Danny Reynolds | Director of College Counseling
While it is important to keep parents informed and aware of the process, it is more important to allow students to take ownership and make them understand this is an important step in their educational journey.  Parents should have input and offer advice, but always being careful not to take over or become so involved that it becomes more about them than about the student.  It is after all, a learning process for both.  The more we empower our students to make certain decisions and to feel that they are somewhat in charge of this process, the more rewarding and meaningful the outcome.

Parents pick your battles

Marilyn Emerson | Founder
It’s important that parents “pick their battles”, providing guidance where it really matters.  Visiting really matters. Visiting helps students to decide if a college is where they will likely be socially happy and academically successful. Visiting both demonstrates a student’s interest in a school, and provides firsthand information that is likely to be helpful for their application.  Other activities and “obligations”, like team sports, music, theater and family vacations, are not viable excuses for not visiting.   Students should be sure to let a college know if a genuinely compelling reason, like financial hardship or serious illness, has prevented a visit.

Parents should direct not dictate the college search process

Yolanda Watson Spiva | Executive Director
Parents can be one of an aspiring college student's best resources. Armed with appropriate and current information, parents or guardians can direct their kids to online and other resources where the student can conduct self-assessments on selecting college majors, college types, and the best overall collegiate fit. Parents should help their kids to organize themselves for the search, application, and enrollment processes as well, but they should not take over the process, rendering their high schooler inactive. At a minimum, parents should serve as sources of information, support and encouragement through the otherwise daunting college search and selection tasks.

Parents should play a supporting role

Ken Huus | Dean of Admissions
Parents can help by initiating conversation with the student about the college search and being a guide and resource throughout the student's search.  The student should own her/his search, but the parent can assist by asking questions about academic areas of interest (or career interests) and what the student might want her college experience to include, and by suggesting college visits.  Parents should also initiate a conversation about the family realities of ability to invest in a college education.  The college search is an exciting process, but also can be stressful.  Having open conversations about college and the search process will help facilitate a successful search.

Parents should serve as mentors in the college search process

Dorothy Styles | Director for College Readiness Programs & Initiatives
It’s been said that the relationship between the parent and child changes when the child goes to college. As children begin to assert their independence and their ability to make decisions without parental involvement; parents must take on the role of mentor/supporter. The college application process is a great time for parents to lay the foundation for this type of relationship. The primary role for parents throughout the college admissions process is to encourage their child by consistently reminding them of their confidence in his/her ability to complete the application process and to choose the college with the best fit.

Parents step back and support teens in becoming college ready

Jill Greenbaum | Founder
Parents can be at their most helpful by recognizing that this is their teen’s search. They need to partner with their teen in this process by: letting their teen take the lead, and help their teen find support through books, websites, the guidance counselor, an advisor or a coach; asking open-ended and supportive questions to check in on the search and selection process; taking responsibility for being clear about financial information and parameters; perhaps completing the FAFSA and other financial information. Teens need to become college ready—and that means stepping into the responsibilities of this process to the best of their abilities.

Provide clerical support and make an file box

Kris Hintz | Founder
Start collecting things that your high school student would otherwise lose: test results, transcripts, awards, sports accomplishments, community service hours, and exceptional essays. Don’t go crazy, don’t insist on your teen’s involvement, just quietly do it, so everything will be organized in one place when your son or daughter needs it. Chefs call this approach “mise en place” (everything in place). Get the ingredients ready so you’ve got them right there when you need them.

Remember who is going to college…

Anne Richardson | Director of College Counseling, International & ESL Programs
Facilitate, but allow your student to own the process. Helping your student to get started with visits, driving the car to campuses, accompanying her on tours and to interviews and helping him to break the process down into manageable, timely pieces are all parts where you can be hugely helpful. The most important piece, however, is to help your student find the college that will be the best fit; the place where s/he will be most successful scholastically and socially.  Support your student and validate his/her choice. It’s all about the fit and the feel … for your student and no-one else.

Schedule an appointment with your kids each week

John Carpenter | Founder
Sometimes kids actually get stressed out talking so much about college, and the best advice I know is not to talk about college over dinner.  A better idea is for parents and kids is to establish a weekly meeting time during senior year, say every Tuesday night for 30 minutes, where you all agree to TALK to each other about what's going on with the search/application process and keep track of deadlines and to-do lists.  Make that the ONLY time you bring up "college" during the week; it prevents parents from inadvertently nagging and it gives kids a regular opportunity to share progress and express concerns.  

Sometimes less is more!  Encourage the student to own the process!

Deborah Shames | Independent College Search Consultant & Transfer Admissions Advisor
Getting in is, ultimately, less important than getting out of college, so more than anything the student needs to be able to be successful academically and socially in the school they attend. Try to keep the lines of communication open and let them discover, through thorough research, why a school is or isn’t a good fit. Work with your student to set up a calendar of deadlines (Microsoft Outlook can be set to send you reminders). Make a chart of deadlines and requirements for each school and check them off as they are completed.  Try to enjoy the journey! 

Take an interest but don’t take over

Amy Greenwald Foley | Sr Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions
I don’t believe in helicopter parents.  Students today collaborate with parents on most decisions.  If you feel the urge to do more in the college search, work alongside your child instead, and: 1) Help them stay organized.  Moms are good at calendars.  Start one for your child that includes college visit dates, application deadlines, and important appointments. 2) Take them places. Make reservations for college visits, get in the car, on the plane, or whatever, and go! 3) Ask questions.  Find out why they’re interested in one school over another and encourage them to think beyond what their friends may think.

Taking care of logistics

Mary Beth Fry | Director of College Counseling
The more a parent takes over, the more the parent actually hinders the process by undermining the student's ability to make good and thoughtful decisions for him or herself.  Parents should always take care of the details (travel arrangements, reservations, paying for plane tickets, etc.), and should have at least one meeting with the college counselor.  Parents should be honest with their children about what they can afford, and should keep an eye on tuition, financial aid and scholarship options.  They should attend at least the first visit to any campus; their presence gives the student a trusted second or third set of eyes through which to evaluate the school. 

The three C's of parent college coaching

Suzanne Shaffer | Founder
The hardest part of parenting a teen is coaching them to do things themselves and attain increased levels of independence. As far as the college process goes, you have three roles as a parent. I call them the 3 C’s. Chart the course by helping them plan for the future. Catalog the journey by keeping track of the details. Cheer them on by encouraging them to study hard, volunteer and get involved in extracurricular activities. Be a coach, not a taskmaster, by following the three C’s: Chart, Catalog and Cheer. Your teen will be happy, well-rounded and prepared for college.

Think tactical support–not command and control

Mary Ann Willis | College Counselor
Stay calm.  Go to college fairs and local presentations with your student. A simple chart with deadlines and application details is invaluable. Provide dates for college visits, but let your student make the visit arrangements. Be a college-visit observer and financier. Take notes. Follow your student’s lead in discussing visits. Never complete application paperwork for your student. Encourage scholarship searches. Get all parental documents ready for applying for financial aid; obtain a FAFSA PIN number for your electronic signature. This is an adventure to be savored and enjoyed. Empower your student. Admission is only the beginning of the college journey.

While students lead, parents should be honest about money

Craig Meister | President
The student must lead the college search and application process. Should parents try to usurp this role from the student, they will be creating more problems for the student down the road. College-ready students need to gain independence and manage increased levels of academic and personal responsibility – and this is the time to start. Parents can most help out by clearly explaining to their student the parameters of what the family is willing and/or able to pay for so the student can figure out what colleges are actually feasible options and worth applying to in the first place.



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