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Articles / Applying to College / Here's How Parents Can Contribute During the College Process

Here's How Parents Can Contribute During the College Process

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Aug. 25, 2020
Here's How Parents Can Contribute During the College Process


If you're the parent of a college-bound high school student, my column today is for you. In years past, the challenge of college admissions was significant enough. This year, and perhaps in coming years, decision making and parental advising have become much more complex due to the ongoing pressures of the highly unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic.

Help is available from numerous sources that can add a reasonable, rational perspective to the broader picture of a parent's role in the college process. One recent resource is The College Board's webinar Applying to College During a Pandemic. In this hour-long presentation, school counselors and college admissions/financial aid staffers offered their views on how the coronavirus has changed the college admissions landscape.

Other related information includes National Public Radio's How The Coronavirus Has Upended College Admissions, Harvard University's Will Coronavirus Change College Admissions?, Boston's NPR news station WBUR's, Tips For Applying To College During The Pandemic, and our own 4 FAQs — With Expert Answers — About Applying to College This Fall. Many more are available through your favorite search engine.

While most of these articles are intended for students planning the college application process, fewer of them target parents. I have always been a strong proponent of parental involvement — within limits — in the college process. College is a family affair because of the team approach. Looking beyond the pandemic for a few paragraphs, let's see how parents can become a positive element in the college process.

How Parents Can Contribute

Although there are notable exceptions, in the traditional hierarchy, parents provide crucial financial support, either through direct payment or cosigning loans. Students negotiate the application process and work with school counselors and others to create an effective presentation of their worthiness to be accepted by an array of colleges and universities. Parents need to understand that their support during the college process is essential.

As an independent college admissions counselor, I obviously dealt with many parents. I see them falling into three main groups: (1) so-called "helicopter" parents, (2) middle-grounders, those whose college-related knowledge is minimal but who are willing to help, and (3) the novices, those who know that the college process is a significant challenge but don't know much, if anything, about it.

Parents hoping to see their child accepted to a highly competitive college, perhaps one included in the U.S. News Top 25-50 rankings, ask, "Can it really be that hard?" Well, the 2019-2020 application cycle was the toughest ever for college admissions, with Stanford University leading the way with a 4.8 percent acceptance rate. Harvard checked in at 5.4 percent, Yale at 6.3 percent, and Princeton at 6.5 percent. Many seniors with near-perfect standardized test scores and other stellar accolades were either rejected from or wait-listed at top schools. The level of difficulty is sobering.

In today's super-competitive college applicant pools, just about everyone has superior numbers, and therein lies the key. This lofty "credential benchmark" consequently requires applicants to reveal themselves beyond sheer quantitative dimensions. They must display aspects about themselves that add nuance and passion in answer to the application's questions and essay prompts. It takes careful introspection.

Get to Know Your Child's True Passion

Passion is the key. The number of parents who have not yet discerned what their child's passion is always surprises me. Relatively few moms and dads are truly observant. The truth about a child's passion sometimes lies beneath a pile of otherwise seemingly innocuous activities.

A student's formative years pass quickly. In today's fast-paced blur of family activities, the daily whirlwind of duties, work, stress, and search for self-meaning can dominate and distract our senses. We must take special care to "see" what is going on around us in our family. Paul Simon, in his The Sound of Silence, wrote, "People hearing without listening." Don't "look without seeing" and let the clues of your child's developing promise slip by unnoticed. What kindles the flames of their heart?

Once you know what your children's respective passions are, you'll have taken a big step toward being able to help them address college admissions. You can do that by helping them bring out their uniqueness in their applications. Helping them to see who they are and what excites them is important insight that can blossom into compelling essays and short responses that will catch the eye of admissions readers who have just read their 17th consecutive sleep-inducing application.

Life is filled with crossroads, mysterious locked doors and buried treasure. When we think of our kids and the lives that lie ahead of them, we need to be a signpost, a key and a metal detector. Increase your sensitivity to your children's deep-rooted preferences — yes, passions. If you can do that over their developmental years, by the time they're ready to apply to college, you can become an important advocate and supporter of their quest.

Parents Seek More Information From Schools

Getting back to COVID-19-related admissions issues, what can we say about a parent's influence on the college process during these times? Campus ESP's Brooke Sterneck shows How parents influence college planning during a pandemic. The sources for this information: "CampusESP recently partnered with Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL), Cappex and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) on a study called College Planning and the Perceptions of Parents After COVID-19. The research summarizes over 3,800 survey responses, most of which came from parents of prospective students …" Here are the key findings:

One-third of parents say COVID-19 has impacted their student's enrollment decisions.

A majority of respondents indicated that they have concerns about student safety, the cost of college and the inability to visit campuses before making a decision. How exactly will these concerns impact enrollment decisions?

  • 55 percent of parents want their student to enroll at a college closer to home.
  • 37 percent of parents want their child to live at home and commute to college.
  • 25 percent of parents are encouraging their student to delay enrollment.
  • 53 percent of families are concerned about their ability to pay.

The cost of college is a family issue. Over 75 percent of parents said they are borrowing money to cover the cost of their student's tuition. 95 percent said that financial aid and scholarships will be an important factor in deciding where their student enrolls.

Families told us which topics they'd like to receive more information about …

  • Additional financial aid opportunities
  • Updates on tuition cost and fee adjustments
  • Deadline extensions

Virtual parent engagement can work. Parents expect it.

Reason for not attending virtual events:

  • Some institutions have transitioned to virtual admissions events, including virtual tours, Q&A sessions, meetings with admissions reps, and online parent orientation. Only 20 percent of families have been satisfied with the experience.
  • 60 percent of families, however, have not participated in these recruitment activities. Why? If you look at the reasons cited, 47 percent said they were not invited as parents. This is a missed opportunity to reach the biggest influencer on student enrollment decisions.
  • Most parents want to play a role in their student's enrollment decisions. And this year, amid new financial and safety pressures, parents have no choice but to get involved. In fact, 80 percent of parents expect more communication from the institutions their child is considering – and 40% percent expect updates every week

Thus, parents can be and are a dynamically involved part of the college process, both as a perceptive, protective child raiser and college critic. I encourage parents to become a thoughtful, discerning "influencer" in matters of college process outcomes. These skills are especially critical now.

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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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