How to Handle the College Application Process as a Parent

The following piece was written by Kofi Kankam. Kofi has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former admissions interviewer for The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the co-founder of Admit Advantage.

His face was alight with the joy of life. Not a care in the world, he would always greet me, arms open, beaming, “I love you, Mom. Good morning. I trust you slept well.” Anything I needed, from the floors being mopped to cleaning out the refrigerator, done without pestering or even request. But all of a sudden, fall semester of senior year, he morphed into some other teenager.

So, if you happen to have the kid described above, God bless you because your next one is sure to be his out-of- control, system-bucking counterpart to balance things out. The reality is that few of us experience the extremes of the personas described above, but life does sometimes change, and not necessarily for the better, for many families walking through the college application process.

From an already stressful and over-scheduled existence, families delve into college season viewing the application process as the element that sends someone in the family, head-first, plunging into the deep end. And quite often, it is the parents.

The gripes and complaints vary, but overwhelmingly, I hear three most often. Here they are, presented in no particular order, with some tips and strategies on how to overcome them:

I just can’t get him motivated to complete his applications.

Ah, procrastination. It is the root of much parental frustration and angst. It has reared its ugly head in the past but likely with less at stake. Here’s the first thing that you, as a parent, must acknowledge – this is your child’s college experience, not yours. If you are in a position to assist your son or daughter with organizing their materials and you feel comfortable doing so, then by all means, feel free. Create a chart or timeline that is useful in helping them understand the time constraints that can define the pressure-cooking application season. Send them reminders about looming deadlines for standardized tests, college visits, high school recruiters, and applications. Assemble documents that they may need to reference in order to complete the applications and then check in regularly to gauge their progress. However, you must realize that the more handholding you do during this final year of high school, the harder the transition will be come freshman year of college. You know the old saying about leading a horse to water? Well, consider your child the horse. 

At some point you will need to cut the ties that may cripplingly bind and let your child rise – or fail to rise – to the occasion. You know your child and the amount of assistance they may need to be nudged along; use this as your compass without crossing the line. You do not want to be that parent on the college campus advocating for a grade change next fall and then five years later discussing his promotion on the job. If your child seems resigned to failure, even with the scaffolding you’ve put in place, perhaps he isn’t ready for college at 17 or 18 years old and a year to grow and experience what life is like outside the world of academia may suit him well and motivate him to take more of a proactive role the second time around in the application process.   

We can’t even talk about his applications without the conversation morphing into an argument.

Children are very perceptive, especially college-bound seniors. If college has become your singular focus, they will pick up on it – immediately. Remember, your child is more than a mere application. Try to revert to conversations of yesteryear and show a genuine interest in your child beyond his applications and pending acceptances. Let him know that you are there to bounce ideas off of and review materials as needed.

You must also realize that application season is a particularly vulnerable time for students. Try to recall your own experience with applying to college. Too long ago? Go back to your last job interview. Remember the feeling of outlining all of your experience and qualifications and then waiting for the verdict? Well, this is your child’s new reality. Often, for the first time, these students are putting their existence of the last three plus years on the line for evaluation, and that is a scary prospect. A short fuse or resistance to engage in an ongoing dialogue with you about applications may be less a reflection of his feelings for you and more an indication of how scared and insecure he may be feeling during this process – not to mention the delicate dance he is now doing to manage all of his academic and extracurricular commitments beyond the applications. Let your child know that you recognize the stressful nature of this period and are there as an outlet. Encourage him to take a break and plan something fun, like a trip to his favorite restaurant or seeing a movie. The greater the sense of normalcy and balance you can maintain, the more likely he is to come to you to discuss his college application questions and woes.   

He won’t even let me read his essay.

The shroud of secrecy that envelops college essays often drives parents insane. Equally, parental badgering and inquiries to read the essay often annoy kids beyond belief. As a parent, the first thing you should ask yourself is what is your motivation for reading the essay? Will you be critical or judgmental? Will you attempt to hijack the essay and make it your own? In reviewing the essay, your motivation should be to support your child in writing an essay that is authentic, relevant, and effective. It should be his voice that comes across, it should answer the question being posed, and it should leave a lasting impression on the reader. 

When you ask your child if you can read the essay, try to do so in a manner that is supportive and encouraging. Again, reflect on your own similar experiences in which one piece of writing or project carried significant weight, and share the experience with your child. Acknowledge the difficulty of conveying something meaningful in a few meager paragraphs but also affirm your belief that he is capable of writing a strong essay. And rather than always asking directly, “Can I read the essay now?”, show a genuine interest in his writing process by inquiring, “How’s the essay coming along?”

When you do finally get the chance to read the essay, you’ll want to remain as objective as possible and only offer feedback that is candid and constructive. If you completely destroy the essay, it’s not likely that your child will continue to solicit or accept your feedback. Highlight the strengths of the essay and encourage him to develop weaker areas by pointing out portions of the essay that are effective.

Finally, if you find that both you and your child have drawn lines in the sand and are unable or unwilling to talk out your differences regarding the essay, seek the advice or counsel of someone else. This may come in the form of a family friend who has recently gone through the application process. It could also be an aunt or uncle with whom your child has a strong and less contentious relationship. It could also be an English or History teacher for whom you child has written other papers.  Realize that sometimes it is the collective feedback from a few trusted key sources that can ultimately shape and guide an essay that is well written and engaging.


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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.