What You Should Push Your Child to Do (and What You Shouldn’t!)

It is exceptionally easy to become excessively involved in your son or daughter's application process. But what you may see as an "active interest", your child might see as overbearing control. Even worse, your involvement in some areas may actually end up hurting your son or daughter's application. However, the admissions process is also incredibly overwhelming and, at times, terrifying, and your help through it will always be welcomed even if its not openly appreciated.

It is hard to walk the line between supporting and smothering, or consulting and controlling. Consider the following 7 tips to help you to find that line and to be as encouraging as possible:

  1. DO prepare for stormy weather. Your child is facing great and sudden change, and sometimes this will turn your teenager back into infant, complete with those baffling temper tantrums and mood swings. Looming independence is both exciting and terrifying, and like learning to ride a bike, your son or daughter will flip-flop seemingly at random between asking you to let go and crying for you to hold on. Try reverting back to pre-adolescent parenting techniques, like offering choices and setting clear limits. In the all-or-nothing world of college admissions, students sometimes need you to provide order.
  2. DON'T take the lead role. Aim for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor/Actress, and let your son or daughter be the star. Nothing was more frustrating (or comical) for me when I worked with college admissions than parents who ceaselessly made excuses for their child's bad grades, or threatened to sue us for what we said. I know that it's hard to let your child be the lead, but consider how admissions officers' perceptions. Seeing parents take such an overly active role attracts attention to themselves and detracts from our ability to perceive their child as a mature adult. Even worse, it detracts from your child's ability to see him or herself as such.
  3. DO recognize that things have changed. While you may think that your experiences in college are an invaluable resource, the admissions process today is an entirely new game. Schools once considered backups have become as selective as Ivy League universities used to be. Be prepared to see your straight-A child rejected from top schools and struggling for acceptance at lower-ranked ones. What worked even just 5 years ago does not still work today. Often a parent's preoccupation with status and rank can be detrimental to the student. Remember that even "low ranked" colleges offer a stellar education. You may also find this article about how parents can deal positively with rejection helpful.
  4. DON'T be a helicopter. A helicopter parent is a not-so-loving term used pejoratively around the college admissions water cooler to refer to overly involved parents who 'hover' over their children, only to 'swoop' in to fight their battles and make their decisions for them. You might think you're helping, but the National Survey of Student Engagement revealed that students of helicopter parents actually earn lower grades than their non-helicoptered peers. Participation in your child's education is encouraged of course, but try to respect the needs of your maturing teen. He or she needs to practice making his or her own decisions and face challenges that will build skills and self-esteem. Maintain a healthy balance by thinking of yourself as a coach: there to provide structure, advice, and role-modeling, but not to swing the bat or throw the pass for them.
  5. DO ask questions. Your son or daughter has likely been drowned in college application advice from teachers, counselors, and peers, and through their own research. In a way, they have become mini-experts in the field. Trust them for this, and ask them questions about the process. Not only does it grant your child their autonomy, it also shows your interest and open-mindedness without appearing overbearing. Never contradict or disbelieve your son or daughter's answers, but rather work with him or her to find and develop the most useful and accurate information.
  6. DON'T write your son or daughter's personal statement. I am tempted to write an entire article devoted to this subject, but will leave you with more succinct advice. You may be involved in the pre-writing brainstorming stages, and the post-writing proofreading, but not in the writing process itself. When editing, it's your goal to make suggestions, not changes. The reasons for this are twofold: the personal statement is supposed to be your child's own work product, not yours. And admissions officers do routinely compare the personal statement to the applicant's SAT or ACT essay. If the voice, vocabulary level, and stylistic qualities vary dramatically, they are going to know that something's up and penalize your child. Resist the temptation to become overly involved in the personal statement.
  7. DO be a parent. I wanted to close on this positive note to remind parents that you can still be a parent. You have to try to respect your child's newfound independence, but remember the role you get to play. You've nurtured your son or daughter through seventeen years, and have fostered a desire to pursue higher education. You have already succeeded and obviously have done at least a few things right. Trust your instincts and continue to be there for your child.

If all else fails, remember this one prevailing maxim: you and your child are on the same team and have the same ultimate goal. Though his or her decisions may seem bizarre to you now, both of you will always have his or her best interests at heart. You can pack the knapsack with a map and compass, but in the end it is the child that must explore.

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