Helping vs. Helicoptering: Parents And The College Admissions Process
Many parents of high school students want to help their child through the College Admissions Process. They recognize that applying to college is not what it was 20 or 25 years ago. Costs are far greater, the stakes are too high and the process itself is far more complicated.
Here is some parent-sourced advice on when parents should offer help, how to provide it – what kinds of help cross the line into too much help.
Stage #1 of the College Admissions Process: “Administrative Assistant a/k/a Mom or Dad”
Winter and Spring of Junior Year in High School:
The time to start to helping might be during the winter of your student’s junior year in high school. Offer to serve as an “administrative aide” to your child as he or she begins researching and planning college visits in the spring.
How to Help:
- prepare a spread-sheet or set up a chart or calendar for important college application, testing, visit and scholarship deadlines and requirements. Parent prepares the spread sheet; child can fill it in with info
- guide your student in researching colleges on what to look for and how to compare information from college website to website
- act as “Arranger-in-Chief” to set up the logistics of college info sessions, tours and visits
Stage #2 of the College Admission Process: “Have You Started Your Essay Yet?”
Summer Before Senior Year:
High school may be out for summer, but the need for administrative assistance ramps up.
How to Help:
- remind your student to continue to fill in the blanks on the College Application chart or calendar with key deadlines and requirements as the research process continues
- prompt your student to begin writing their College Essays (award extra parental points for completion of drafts by Labor Day)
- if within the family budget, seek the help of an independent college planner to help with specific portions of the College Admission Process (note: objective help from an expert could be particularly helpful for a student in a large public high school where personalized guidance may be limited)
- have a candid talk with your student about the family college budget – what can the family contribute to college costs and how much their student should seek in Financial Aid
Stage #3 of the College Admission Process: “Motivator-in-Chief”
Fall of Senior Year:
The countdown to application deadlines is now measured in weeks, not months. Parents may want to ramp up their executive assistance role and take on another even more important one: “Motivator-in-Chief.”
How to Help:
- urge your student to review the spread sheet, calendar and chart so they don’t miss any key deadlines or requirements
- set up a weekly time for the parent and student to meet to help their student stay on track
- work with your student to create a mutually-approved final List of Schools to find colleges that offer a best fit academically, socially and financially
- give your student the parental information they need to complete the College Application such as the parent’s title at work, name of employer and educational background
- offer to proofread completed draft Applications and draft Essays for typos and grammar errors and point them out to their student for corrections
- step back if you see your child independently handling the process
- step right back in if you see your child struggling with the process
Why it is Important for Parents to Support Their Child in the College Admission Process
The Process is Far More Complex and Complicated:
The College Application Process has greatly changed in the past 25 years. There are too many intricate, moving parts – a variety of application forms to choose from, a choice of admission options to consider, an array of different deadlines to meet – for an inexperienced seventeen year old to handle on her own while also keeping up with school, activities and their personal lives.
Higher Ed is Far More Costly and Consequential:
Creating the final College List mandates parent involvement because of the significant financial implications involved. Choosing colleges and analyzing their costs have become critical factors, with the potential to impact a family for generations to come. Parents’ openness with their children about their own financial contribution and what will expected of their child will reduce family stress.
Parental Involvement Reduces the Chances for Expensive Mistakes:
As one parent told me, “I’d be crazy to let my high school senior handle the most important decision of his life totally on his own. If he misses one key deadline, the consequences could be severe.” No one wants to be that parent whose claim to infamy is that their child didn’t get accepted to college because he forgot to submit a requested piece of information.
Yes, Parents Can Help TOO Much in the College Admissions Process
Assist, guide and help are acceptable action verbs during the College Admissions Process. But parents should not to take over any part of the process.
Here are some examples of parental over-zealousness bordering on hyper- helicoptering.
- Do not call a College Admissions Officer imitating your child’s voice or write emails from your child’s account. College Admissions Officers want prospective students to contact them, not you.
- Do not go onto a potentially toxic and/or competitive college message board impersonating your child to gauge his or her chances of admission.
- Do not write or edit your child’s College Application Essay. Proofreading for typos and grammatical errors may be o.k., but your child should be the sole author of the essay. A heavy parental hand on an essay is easily detected by a College Admissions Officer
- Do not forget that your child is the one going to college, not you. Too much help during the process to get accepted to college will undermine your child’s ability to become an independent young adult once he is in college
Finding the Right Balance between Help and Helicoptering
Parents know their children best. Some students will need more parental assistance, others are able to thrive throughout the College Admission Process with less parental involvement.
Knowing when to help, how to help and how to refrain from crossing the line into too much help is key.
Your support throughout this process is what will help your child succeed.
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By Nancy L. Wolf, a retired lawyer, published author, and college essay coach, tutors international graduate students in writing and teaches English as a second language at the Washington English Center. She previously mentored first-generation-to-college high school students through the Posse Foundation, College Tracks and College Bound in the DC area. In addition to her two grown children, grandson, and husband, Nancy is a devoted caretaker of Howie, her part poodle/part Jack Russell terrier rescue dog.