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Articles / Applying to College / A Parent’s Place in The College Quest

A Parent’s Place in The College Quest

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 8, 2019
A Parent’s Place in The College Quest

Over the past months, I've concentrated the majority of my thoughts here on the various aspects of the college process as it applies to high school seniors. Now that the bulk of those applications have been submitted (yes, I know that there are still some deadlines out there), I thought I would turn my attention to current juniors, who will be officially entering the college process this fall -- as well as the roles their parents will play.

Of course, some juniors are already actively involved in various aspects of the process, by visiting colleges, searching for good matches or seeking resources that offer them guidance (and cautions) about what -- and how -- to do the right things. College Confidential should be at the top of that list of resources. If you're reading this, you're on the CC website, what I think is the most comprehensive source of free information about all things college.

The area I would like to discuss today is the role parents can play in the college process. Granted, in my many years of counseling seniors about applying to college, I've encountered more than a few who wanted to be Lone Rangers, hoping to go it alone, without the help (or as some say, “interference") of their parents.

I think the Lone Ranger approach is a negative and can lead to mistakes and lost opportunities for college applicants. When I was a high school senior, there were times when the last thing I wanted was for my parents to be involved in (or even know about) what I was doing. Teenagers can sometimes develop a warped sense of their own brilliance about managing their lives. Applying to college can be one of those times when arrogance can lead to bad judgment.

Parents' Evolving Roles

Things have changed significantly since my high school days. That's an extreme understatement! Over the holidays, I discussed the college admissions process with my daughter, who is an AP English teacher in a highly regarded school district. We compared notes about the intensity of getting into college these days.

My perspective is somewhat unique, since I have a close association with today's high schoolers seeking to get into highly competitive colleges. I get to know their parents, too. Plus, I scour the College Confidential discussion forumsseveral times every day to check the mood and attitudes of students and parents, which is sometimes full panic!

My daughter agreed with me about the ongoing angst that she sees among her students as they aspire to get into the schools of their dreams, many of which are Ivy League and other top-25 institutions. We discussed what the process was like for her when she applied to college, back in the late 1980s.

At that time, I had already begun my admissions counseling career, so I was able to give her some sound fundamental approaches to her admissions quest. That was easy for me because she was focused on one particular school about which she knew a lot and which some close friends of hers attended.

Thus, she applied Early Decision to that one school, was accepted, and graduated with honors in English four years later. She has since gone on for her master's and doctoral credits and has helped many of her students with their college applications. Maybe she got my counselor gene.

One particularly amusing part of our discussion involved my recounting of my own college process, which could be referred to as “falling backward into college." I've droned on in previous posts here about how, because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I mused that I wanted to get into the then-fledgling computer programming field. As a result of my tennis skills, though, I was recruited by a small DIII college not that far from my home and I enrolled there. So much for COBAL and FORTRAN.

My parents had little input into my college decision. However, they did sacrifice during difficult economic times to pay my higher education expenses. But as far as helping me focus on how to make a well-considered college choice, they were at a loss, other than giving me moral support. That was important and I was grateful, of course, but compared to parental involvement today, they were at a serious disadvantage, since neither had ever attended college.

Process Creates Stress for Both Generations

Like many issues today in our hyperkinetic, uptight world, the process of college admissions can be a huge pile of anxiety for both applicants and their parents. The applicant is uptight about finding the right college and getting in. Parents are worried about how to pay for it. It's a bittersweet experience that can cause friction, sleepless nights and stress-ridden days for aspiring collegians.

So, what should a parent's role be during this onerous process? As I mentioned, I can speak from experience, since I was the father during my daughter's (and son's) college admissions cycles. Of course, I had a distinct advantage over many dads, owing to my independent college admissions counseling experience. Obviously, I knew how to handle the complexities of the regimen and was able to take a lot of pressure off my children as they executed their various application steps. If they had a question, old dad was just in the other room. However, most of you parents reading this are probably not admission counselors, so you're wondering what you should be doing and how you should be thinking about all this.

I found an older article about this very subject, a parental perspective that may be close to your own. Jennifer Armour has some superb observations about parents and the college admissions process. Let's take a look at some of her article's highlights.

College Admissions: What's a Parent To Do?

… I am a proud member of Generation X — a former latchkey kid who was raised to be self-reliant, independent minded and driven. As a child, I did my own laundry, cooked many of my meals and packed my lunch for school. My homework was just that — mine. And when it came time for me to choose a college, I alone did the research and completed the necessary applications.

Twenty-five years later, my 17-year-old daughter is searching for her perfect college. And my challenge … is not to become overly involved in the process. You'd think that someone raised the way I was would have no problem stepping back, would find it easy to let my child be completely in charge of this phase of her life. You'd be wrong.

… What about before college acceptance? Are high school upperclassmen equally stressed and depressed? If so, can a parent's participation in the college admissions process heighten that stress?

All of this was weighing heavily on my mind a few weeks ago when my daughter and I attended college night at her high school … Upon arrival, we were given a packet that included our student's transcript, a sheet describing the college admissions software Naviance and a timeline that listed dates for standardized testing, AP exams and the first meeting with the counselor.

We were also handed two surveys, one to be completed by my daughter, the other by my husband or me … My husband and I will answer questions such as these:

- In what ways has your child surprised you? Does he/she excel at something you never thought possible?

- Discuss the personal growth in your child that you have noticed since his/her freshman year of high school up to today.

- Do you have any concerns about the college planning process? What are they? How significant a role will financial aid play in your decision making process about where to attend college? ...

… I told my daughter that I was excited about turning this process over to her and her counselor. I explained that I did not want to be cast in the role of the bad guy and feared that was exactly what was going to happen. My opinions seemed to be welcome as long as they matched hers. But as soon as I disagreed or offered a different point of view, I was labeled as being difficult, or worse yet, pushy. I reiterated that I understood that this search, this process, was for her — not me.

Uncertainty Permeates the Process

You can see that even the most experienced parent can have uncertainties. However, the key is to stay in touch with the pulse of current happenings in the college admissions world and not be afraid to ask questions. For those of you who want a broader parental perspective, check out this College Confidential forum thread: How helicopter parents are ruining college students. There, you'll find such comments as:

As pointed out by the one set of parents interviewed for the article, it is crucial to teach your child from a young age how to be independent and make good decisions. A commonality I've noticed in the helicopter parents of college-aged kids that I know is that they were quite busy and stressed while their kids were growing up. Very often it's much safer, more reliable, and generally easier to do things ourselves rather than to let our kids do it.

So the busy parents too often choose the easy way of just taking charge of the tasks so they can cross them off their long to-do list and move on. But their kids miss out on learning opportunities. Then all of sudden the awareness hits the parent that their son or daughter is not well-prepared to be out on his or her own, so they panic and helicopter.

Hmmm. When people lived in multigenerational family homes, was this also a big problem? I agree that there is probably an increase in over-involved parenting, but I also think that instantaneous electronic communication is simply changing the ways families function and communicate. If my daughter calls me as she's walking across campus to complain that the dining hall was out of tea, is that overdependence? Or is it just that she feels comfortable making conversation in the same way she did when we lived in the same house?

34 years ago, my friends and I found it quite amusing that one of us not only had a phone in her room, but used it to call her parents once a week! We attributed this to her being “a sweet Catholic girl."

My D has been at college for not quite two weeks now, and we have texted daily, emailed frequently, had at least 4 phone calls, and Skyped for an hour once. Or in other words, we are doing many of the same things we did before she left. The only difference is the Skype call.

It doesn't feel odd or overprotective. It just feels like we want to maintain our relationship with our kid. As someone wrote, modern technology has changed the way families work. I like it.

As you think about your role as a parent in your child's college process, keep in mind that old business-oriented definition of Total Quality: mutually understood requirements. Once you and your child understand each other's requirements, you'll be on your way to a “quality" and successful outcome.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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