College Planning Guide for Parents

I have a friend, a writer in New York City, who is bright, engaging, and an inventor of words. In addition, she was a pro with the college process when supporting her two (quite different) kids through their admission journey. It was when her two children enrolled in college that she began referring to them as “kadults,” a portmanteau that she used to describe her kids as both children and adults. When will the “kadults” be home for break? Are we taking the “kadults” on vacation with us this year?

Bingo! I thought. This word struck at the very center of where her college-age young adults were in their life span – because it recognized both the duality of the age and the dilemma for parents: keeping close enough to guide yet honoring space for growth. The parental dance of support, strategic distance, steadfast presence – whether upfront or behind the scenes– highlights the unique developmental needs of a child on the brink of adulthood, of young people who are making adult decisions. My friend’s keen awareness of this transition enabled her to recognize vulnerability but still honor independence and exercise trust – which, ultimately, let her kids fly, discover, and develop on their own.

The college journey is the first time that teens will take on the task of planning for the future and making an adult decision for themselves. Choosing a college is an opportunity for students to gain a deeper understanding of themselves, their capabilities, and their goals. As parents, you can help students dream, plan, and take on a new set of responsibilities. The path to choosing a college is the perfect learning ground for them to gain skills in making informed decisions – and an opportunity for you, as a parent or guardian, to choose the appropriate degree of involvement to have in their lives.

The College Journey is a Personal Experience

The process of getting into college is a very personal experience. Families come in all shapes and sizes, each with their own unique dynamic, so the college search and application process takes on a personal structure or shape. Students will identify their preferences, including size, location, area of study, and will consider factors including academic interest and residential life experience, and these preferences will influence both their college list and their final school choice.

Make the search a personal one. In other words, don’t compare your child to others. Every teen is unique, and the goal is to find the best fit for them – a college that will support, challenge, and inspire your teen to grow, one step at a time.

Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to help your student through the college process. Some students prefer parents to be more hands-on, whereas others thrive when given the space to explore independently and only receive support on an as-needed basis. Figure out what works best for you and your family.

Empower Your Student

Offering your teen the space to think and process change on their own supports their growing sense of individuality. A great start would be to allow for a comfortable space to talk about their hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations. Help your kids open up about themselves and become comfortable with sharing information about their college vision. If they are applying to a four-year residential institution, keep in mind that they are talking for the first time about a future where you won’t be part of their daily routine. This can take courage and getting used to – from both sides. So, communicate openly, talk honestly about the transition to college, but set clear boundaries on when you will step in to help. Resist the urge to micromanage because the counter force to absolute control is total shut down.

Remember that people are not extensions of their parents, and parents don’t always know best. When given the room to make their own decisions, teens feel in charge and exercise a sense of control over their decisions. You’ll see interest, motivation, and autonomy fostered in your child as you recognize the independent path that they are creating for themselves, but be there to celebrate and to nudge when needed.

Support Their Interests and Preferences

Encourage, be positive, and focus on your student’s strengths and abilities. Being aware of student activities and how they spend their time can be an exciting opportunity for parents to help students explore their interests in a deeper way so that they can test academic areas or pursue specific hobbies. You can help students evaluate a spectrum of academic topics by suggesting online courses, trips to local museums, pre-college programs, volunteer jobs or internships, or by chatting with relatives about their chosen field and career – all experiences that encourage learning and thoughts beyond the everyday or familiar. Your input is important because parental insight lends perspective and relates information that teens lack about living in the world on their own.

Open Communication to Create a Plan

Providing guidance that keeps them on track can come in the form of reminders for checking in, or posing questions about what they may need to keep one step ahead. You can share timelines, focus on milestones, and keep it all on track – at a healthy pace. Remember to keep it student-centered, and set aside a time each week to talk and monitor progress.

It is important that your child knows that you are there to support them throughout the process. Help them to co-create a plan and include topics such as creating a balanced list, meeting application deadlines, and choosing institutions that are the right fit.

Be Upfront about Cost and Other Non-Negotiables

Having honest conversations from the start about what your student should be aware of, especially in terms of cost and what that means for their applications, is critical for a robust and successful search process. If a student has an idea of what to expect, they can make smart cost-conscious decisions such as applying to schools with strong merit aid programs, in-state institutions, or other strong local options.

Create a Network

Success often requires the support of others—so it is important to build a college team. School counselors are responsible for supporting your student by submitting a high school report, so they are important contacts when confirming the submission of transcripts and/or recommendation letters. Be sure to get to know your school counselor early on and keep your information updated. Teachers can also support students by writing detailed and relevant letters of recommendation that illustrate a student’s skill and contribution to peers and classroom discussions.

In addition, an independent college counselor can be a key member of your team. Our Educational Planners at PrepMatters will share insights on the latest trends in colleges admissions. With years of experience and first-hand information on hundreds of students, we will work to create options for you by suggesting a list of colleges that offers a balance of reach, target, and likely schools. We will help manage your outcomes – of acceptance, deferral, and denial – or of the nuanced position of being on a wait list. We will help you to see new opportunities and create options that are right for your student and your family.

Stay Informed on the Evolving Admissions Landscape

Do some research on your own – and look to understand the current landscape. Be sure to be realistic about your own expectations because every aspect of college admissions has evolved in significant ways over the last number of years.

Recent shifts include colleges moving to test optional or test blind standardized testing policies. Essays and letters of recommendation now take the spotlight in sharing diverse perspectives and experiences and for establishing the context of one’s life. Admissions decisions for students have become unpredictable — and students will need help in creating a plan that will be relevant to their personal strengths and goals.

Plan college tours and visit top choice schools. Join an info session and campus tour to gain firsthand insight into a school’s culture and academics. The info session is a way to learn specific details about a school, listen to the rules from those who set the policies, and see the admission staff in action. The tours are typically student led, so the observations shared will be current and candid.

Minimize Stress for You and Your Child

Be open to talking about college, create a research plan, and mark your calendar for the college process milestones. Planning ahead will reduce stress.

One of the largest causes of parental stress that we see in our offices is trying to navigate the mass of rumors that exist on the internet, at school sporting events , or at neighborhood gatherings. These days, there are many college application myths floating about, so stay centered and clear headed. Assure your teen that you are open to their possibilities and not firmly entrenched in the cheering section of one or two particular colleges that you choose.

Next Steps:

  • Calibrate your Degree of Involvement
    What does the right degree of involvement look like? Primarily, it means that you should not be deciding things that students are capable of deciding for themselves. Help them to learn what they need to know in order to make good decisions. If you are working too hard on your child’s plan, maybe it is time to step aside and listen.
  • Seek Advice from Trusted Advisors
    Experienced professionals at PrepMatters soften the parental role but listen to both student and family goals while sharing pertinent and current information related to college admissions. We can assist parents by addressing their questions and concerns and, at the same time, support students as they begin to speak about their ideas for college.  
  • Now is the Time
    Here, at PrepMatters, we know just how stressful the college application process is, and we are here to serve as your trusted advisor. We see countless families contact us late in the game only to realize that they have made things much harder than they needed to be for themselves and their kadults. Now is the time to reach out and to let us talk about how we can help. 
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