Parents: 8 Steps for Keeping College Applications Sane
For millions of high school students across the country, the start of 12th grade doesn’t just signal the beginning of the end of high school. It also signals the beginning of the college application season—and all the stressors and deadlines that go along with it. If your teen is applying to college, the fall of senior year is crunch time, and your student is likely feeling the pressure.
But college applicants aren’t the only ones under stress during application season; the stress can rub off on the entire family—especially you, the parents. If you’re the parent of a college hopeful, you might be unsure of how to ease this stress. In this post, we outline eight ways you can help to support your teen through this stressful process without overstepping.
1. Start Early.
Sometimes, the longer you wait, the harder it is to even get started. College applications are hard enough on their own; the last thing your teen needs is the additional stress of procrastination.
That’s why we recommend starting the conversation about college early. By beginning college discussions in broad terms when your student is in 10th or even 9th grade, you’ll lay a strong foundation for future discussions before the stress begins. Having conversations about college early and often can help to establish common goals, clarify expectations on both sides, and open the door for future communication, including hard conversations about differing priorities or choices. Get your teen talking early. Then, keep the door open: as your teen progresses through high school, his or her interests will likely change or solidify; at the same time, the application process will become more serious.
2. Understand Each Application.
Don’t make it your teen’s job to educate you about college applications—he or she has enough to worry about! Instead, educate yourself about the college application process (spoiler alert—it’s mostly online these days).
To support your teen through the process, read up on the Common Application, the Coalition Application, and the Universal Application. These three cover the applications for most colleges and universities in the country. Your teen will likely appreciate your insightful suggestions or answers when he or she shares a question or comment about an application.
3. Know What Needs to be Accomplished.
In addition to getting to know specific application forms and platforms, you should also familiarize yourself with the supporting materials your student will need to submit or request. These typically include components like an official transcript, letters of recommendation, and standardized test score reports. Different schools will have different specific requirements, so investigate the details for each school on your student’s school list.
For example, some schools will request two letters of recommendation from teachers and one from a school counselor, while other schools will allow a letter from a coach, boss, or other mentor. Knowing these differences isn’t just convenient; it can also save time and even money. Some schools require official SAT score reports with the application; others allow students to self-report their scores and only require an official report (which you must pay for) for confirmation after an applicant is accepted.
4. Know What Each School Wants.
In addition to knowing the basic requirements for each application, familiarize yourself with the admissions standards at each school. A spreadsheet is one simple to organize these statistics. You might include things like 50th percentile SAT or ACT scores, average GPA, and any other information you can glean about what each school’s admission committee seeks. Schools that use holistic admissions will place more weight on service projects, experiences, and extracurriculars, while large universities are more likely to rely on test scores and GPA. To get a better idea of what each school is looking for, check out our database of College Application Tips, which includes tailored admissions advice for hundreds of colleges.
5. Start Working on an Admissions Theme.
It seems that each year college admissions becomes more competitive; with this competition, the picture of a strong applicant has changed. In the past, good grades, strong test scores, and a few great letters of recommendation were enough for many selective schools. Now, though, this is the minimum expected by selective schools. To be accepted, an applicant often needs something more to make him or her stand out.
This is where an admissions theme comes in. Your student’s admissions theme is essentially his or her story, framed in a unique, memorable way. The admissions theme highlights your student’s traits that make him or her exemplary and original. Get your teen thinking about how he or she is different from other candidates, how his or her accomplishments could form a cohesive narrative, and how to highlight these traits throughout the application, from the activities list to essays to letters of recommendation.
6. Understand Early Action/Early Decision Strategies and Deadlines
Early action (EA) and early decision (ED) are important options to weigh. Sometimes, applying EA or ED can improve your student’s chances of admissions at highly competitive colleges. However, applying early does have some drawbacks, including rushing your student’s application timeline or (in the case of ED) closing off other options if your student is accepted. By learning more about these options and how they fit your student’s priorities, you can help your student decide which application strategy will best work for him or her and for your family.
Keep in mind that these deadlines can sneak up on you—most early application deadlines are in late fall, months before RD deadlines! To avoid a last-minute scramble, research early action/early decision options during the summer before 12th grade, if not sooner. Check out our post What Are the Differences Between Early Action and Early Decision? to learn more.
7. Communicate and Set Clear Boundaries
One aspect of the college application process that can put particular stress on parent-child relationships is the vague delineation between parent- and student-led decision making. It’s likely that you have had the final say in many major decisions in your child’s life. That is about to change as your teen heads to college, and, in order to set him or her up for success, it’s a good idea to establish clear boundaries now about who makes what kind of decisions—and which decisions you still expect to weigh in on.
School lists are an example of one area where parental concerns and priorities can come into play. If you expect your student to live at home through college, that will significantly influence your student’s final college list. Similarly, if college choices for your teen are limited by your family’s finances, this will constrain your student’s school list.
Whenever possible, make your own expectations clear and set reasonable boundaries without making decisions for your teen. When it comes to the details of the application process, strive for the same kind of clarity; be certain your student knows what you expect of him or her in terms of meeting deadlines independently.
8. Enjoy the Moment
The college applications process can be a little melancholy for many parents. Your child will soon be heading out into the world on his or her own. 12th grade will pass in a blur, so be sure to set some time aside to enjoy it together. Making a family date night once a week or simply designating a time to check in with one another or eat dinner together is a great way to connect and cherish your child’s final months of high school.
Does your teen want access to expert college guidance — for free? When they create their free CollegeVine account, they will find out their real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve their profile, and get their questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Encourage them to sign up for their CollegeVine account today to get a boost on their college journey.