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Articles / Applying to College / What is Parents' Role in the College Process?

What is Parents' Role in the College Process?

C Written by Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick, M.A. and Jenn Curtis, M.S.W. | Dec. 2, 2021
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Photo by Emma Dau on Unsplash

How to Support Your Teen with College Admissions - and When to Step Aside

We took a trip to Boston last week. As educational consultants, part of our job is to travel the country to visit college and boarding school campuses so that we can learn more about what each one uniquely offers its students. Large or small? Urban or rural? Ample research opportunities or co-op style internship opportunities? Our visits reveal valuable information that we pass on to our students and their parents. And on this most recent trip to Boston—a city largely defined by an extraordinary number of colleges—we were paying attention to the high school students and their families there to do that same thing we were, full of questions, eager to impress. We witnessed quiet students, curious students, and impassioned students. We witnessed parents proudly snapping photos, no doubt picturing what their child’s years on that campus might look like. But we also witnessed parents too full of questions, too eager, and too controlling.

Let us be clear: Admission officers aren’t interested in what parents have to say. They aren’t interested in parents who speak for their kids or ask the questions that their students should be asking. So, it got us thinking. We decided to pull together a helpful guide, one that clearly outlines parents’ roles in the college admission process and ways for students to take charge.

The College Search:

This is your student’s turn. As we often say to our clients, you had your turn. Let your teen take the lead in the college search process. It’s perfectly all right to provide college search resources and guide books (we like the Fiske Guide), and to help your teen identify what to look for in a college. But once he understands what to look for and where to find it, take a step back and leave the note-taking and deep diving up to him.

If your teen isn’t sure what characteristics an ideal college would have, sit down together to make a list of priorities, but make sure they are your teen’s priorities and not yours. Some characteristics to consider might be: accessibility of professors, size of student body, proximity to an airport/ease of travel, availability of internships and other hands-on opportunities, school-specific programs such as arts or engineering, ability to conduct or participate in research as an undergraduate student.

Your role isn’t to be incredibly opinionated or narrowly focused on a small list of schools. Allow your teen to explore schools that fit their educational needs, profile, personality, and learning goals.

Your role in the college search process is also this: Be realistic. Encourage your teen to have plenty of target and safe options. (Don’t cross your fingers for a bunch of reach schools and hope for the best. That never turns out well.)

Campus Visits

Bit by bit, college campuses are opening up to visits from prospective students. Let your teen take on some of the planning for campus tours. Teens are perfectly capable of researching which schools are currently allowing in-person tours and interviews, and the relevant policies, and of registering for campus tours, information sessions, and requesting interviews.

You might even consider not taking the tour with your teen. If you do, it is recommended to verbally restrain yourself on the tour.

Your teen should research each school before the visit and come up with thoughtful questions to ask of current students and admission officers while on campus. In preparation, feel free to help navigate college websites and think of specific questions for each campus.

Personal Statements/College Essays:

We’ll say it up front, and we’ll be crystal clear: Don’t write any essays for your teen. It’s called a personal statement for a reason: It should reflect their story, their unique experience, their voice. It is supposed to sound like a teenager wrote it.

Do feel free, however, to brainstorm ideas and life experiences that your teen might want to share in the essay. If your teen prefers to share the admissions essays only after applications have been submitted, respect that choice.

Standardized Testing

Let’s get real: test prep isn’t always fun. Your role is to show empathy; this is a tedious process involving hours of studying and multiple practice tests. You can also support your teen by being the “timer” for practice tests.

And once again be realistic. You might find that your teen isn’t a great test taker. If your teen’s scores aren’t what you hoped, don’t put undue pressure on an already pressure-laden process! Students should have the final say on if they want to take the time to study and retake the exam or not. If they do choose to take it again, help them come up with a realistic timeline and a solid study strategy.

Navigating Decisions

When it comes to navigating college decisions, parents and teens need to fully embrace and understand that failure is part of the process. This can be an incredibly overwhelming time for teens (especially those who are high achieving). It may be one of the first times teens aren’t successful in achieving something that they set out to accomplish. Disappointment is an inherent part of the admission process, and while it might feel like a personal failure to teens and their parents, in truth it really is not. College admission is an imperfect and flawed process, and all students can do is present the best versions of themselves, do the best that they’re capable of (with their mental health still intact), and complete the application process and essays to the best of their abilities. And then, breathe and wait. And wait.

Parents, to better prepare for college decisions be sure that you have conversations way before they are set to come out. Prepare for the worst case scenario and be sure your teen is ready for the possibility of multiple denials of admission. In naming college decisions, we implore you not to use the word “rejection;” instead refer to it as a “denial of admission.” (For more on that, read our article on rethinking how we frame college admissions decisions.)

Celebrate your good news with close friends and family who know your teen well, but parents, we suggest that you don’t post decisions publicly online. If you must, do so very cautiously and be cognizant of others’ feelings and how your message will be received. (Note: You can connect anonymously with other parents and admitted students to share results and ask questions in the CC Community.)

Once decisions are in, focus on the effort your teen has put into this enormous and taxing application and high school process. Praise how hard you saw them work and the journey that it took to get there—no matter the outcome. Comment on the effort you witnessed and the energy they exhibited to get through the process. And then, don’t focus on the outcome as much. Whether they end up at your first choice for them is not what matters. What matters is that they have a solid plan for their future, confidence in their ability to navigate the world, and trust that you’ll be there for them along the way.

College after high school is not always the path for everyone. Taking gap years, attending trade school, joining the workforce, pursuing community college, or joining the military are among the plethora of other post-secondary school options. Be flexible and open to those paths, too. (More on that here).

Finally, take a deep breath and remember that things usually work out in the end as long as you and your teen have a realistic college list or post-secondary school plan. Just remember that your role is to consult and support along the way, not to direct and dictate. You will have a self-assured, confident, mature young adult in your home before you know it! Just be sure to let them take the lead.

Written by


Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick, M.A. and Jenn Curtis, M.S.W.

Cynthia C. Muchnick, M.A. & Jenn Curtis, M.S.W. are the co-authors of The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen's Wellness and Academic Journey in Today's Competitive World. To learn more please follow them on Instagram @parentcompass or visit www.parentcompassbook.com.

Cynthia is a graduate of Stanford University and has been working in education for the past 25+ years as a former Assistant Director of College Admission, high school teacher, educational consultant, and author of five other education-related books. She speaks professionally to parents, students, teachers, and businesses on topics such as study skills, the adolescent journey, college admission, and now the parent compass movement. www.cynthiamuchnick.com

Jenn earned a BA from UCLA and MSW from USC and has been an educational consultant and professional speaker for the past 13 years. As owner of FutureWise Consulting, she has worked with hundreds of students across the nation on every aspect of the college admission process. With a background in research and mental health, she is particularly passionate about empowering teens to approach life with intention and educating parents about using their parent compass.

Visit www.parentcompassbook.com or follow these handles for more information on the authors and their book:

instagram | @parentcompass

facebook | TheParentCompass

LinkedIn | Cindy Muchnick and Jenn Curtis

twitter | @ParentCompass1

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