How Involved Should Parents Be in the College Application Process?

Helicopter parents college

How Involved Should Parents Be in the College Application Process?

Helicopter parents college

When it comes to the college application process, every parent wants to know how much help is too much help to provide their student. Parents have different viewpoints, as do college counselors. Here’s what we learned.

One Parent’s Approach

I vowed that I was never going to be a helicopter parent. I told my daughter that it was up to her to decide where she wanted to go to college, to just let us know and as long as we could afford it, she could go.

That ended up irritating her no end, because she thought we didn’t care, in comparison to all the other parents who were writing college essays for their kids and driving around for college tours. It’s not that we didn’t care, it’s that we thought the whole part of being college age was starting to make your own decisions. You know, fly away from the nest.

She chose the college she did more because she had an opportunity to play soccer there than anything else. (It was supposed to be a good school for what she wanted to major in.) But, I figured live and learn, and what I learned was that she hated it.

This led to two and a half years of community college during which she lived at home (not quite getting away from the nest). And then another two years at the University of Virginia, which she had originally sworn she’d never attend because it was like going to school at home since it was so close to home (where, by the way, she also lived for another two years).

So she ends up going to school for around five years and she doesn’t get to major in anything she really wants to, because transfer students aren’t eligible for certain classes, all of which winds up with her majoring in anthropology. And, no, she doesn’t want to be an anthropologist.

What she wants to be is in the medical profession. So now we’re shelling out some $50,000 for her to attend some accelerated program that gets her an RN and BSN at the same time (and, yes, apparently there is such a thing as having a Bachelor’s degree from two different schools).

Maybe life would have been less difficult (and less expensive) if we had been more involved in the initial decision-making process. Then again, maybe I would have made it worse: I might have encouraged her to follow in the steps of her old man and be an English major. Then we’d be supporting her forever.

Dave, WV

An Expert Weighs In

Anna Seltz

Anna Seltz is a private college counselor and owner of Higher Ed U, College Admissions Consulting. She has the following thoughts on Dave’s experience with his daughter:

In my 14 years of working with students, both in college admissions as well as in my role as an independent educational consultant, I have seen all levels of parental involvement in the college search and application process.

What I think Dave’s experience shows is that the extremes do not work. Neither helicoptering nor a completely hands-off approach is the right attitude. Like so many things in life, moderation is the key to success.

Parents should start talking early (think the start of 9th grade) with their student about the college application process in a fun, low-stress way.

Let the student know from the beginning that this process is a partnership and that the student will be the guiding force behind finding the final college that is the right fit for them.

Being involved does not have to mean being a helicopter parent.

It does mean that you are there as a support to help them make the biggest decision of their young lives. Go through the process with them and in the end, evaluate the pros and cons of each school to help them make their final choice.

Our Community Weighs In

When it comes to how involved a parent should be in the college application process, members of our Paying for College 101 (PFC 101) group had differing opinions. They ranged from somewhat involved:

“We played a collaborative role in the college search, but were hands off when it came to completing the actual application (we did create a timeline together to make sure deadlines were observed). There has to be some level of independence demonstrated before we shell out 100k+.” – Jennifer

“This is their journey. We approved the schools they applied to, but they had to keep track of everything. If they couldn’t keep track of it, I would have assumed that they weren’t ready to be at that particular institution.”  – Teresa 

To more involved:

“Ours was a total team effort. There’s so much to learn and know about the process, not just in general but specific to each college. There’s no way we could have expected our daughter to learn everything and execute it while also being a high school senior and all that’s involved.” – Kimberly

“We worked together. I used the info I learned here in Paying for College 101 to find some colleges we might not have thought of, and we set realistic expectations. She took care of applying and essays and finding some schools she was interested in. We decided together on the final choice.” – Maureen

To hands off:

“We did nothing but offer the credit card to pay the app fees and test score submission fees. Turns out, that was a mistake.” – Ann

Overall, most of the parents in our community suggest you strike a balance. And that communication from the start is key.

“Every kid is different — assess needs, maturity, independence, and reliability. It’s a stressful, scary, exciting, overwhelming time. Each parent, student and family process is unique.” – Kathleen 

Perhaps this parent summed it up best:

“It really is up to you and your child. Some kids are more proactive and are leading the process. Many don’t even want to talk about it. The key is to understand where your child is and meet them there.” – Susan

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