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Do's and Don’ts for the College Application Process

How to help your child go through it stress-free (well, almost)

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett

In the spring, a high school senior’s fancy turns to thoughts of college envelopes, fat and thin, or email messages, long and short, and parents of juniors start amping up worries for the future. 
Applying to college has become a family enterprise, not a solitary journey. Most parents want to be involved in the process of investigating options, because they care about their children’s education and because it’s often parents who will be footing most, or all, of the bill.
But how involved should they be?

Once students are “off to college” and making their way through those four (or more) years, this question is likely to arise again and again. When should parents advise, when should they intervene and when should they step back and let their emerging adults handle things themselves? 
(MORE: Off to College: How to Step Back but Stay Connected)
The college application process is an important practice ground for the delicate balance required from now on: of supporting and guiding but not dominating, of staying involved in grown children’s life-changing decisions while letting them make their own choices.  
A Whole New Process For Applying
If you are college-educated, how many colleges did you apply to, way back when? Chances are you applied to far fewer than your children do today. 
For over 30 years, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) has been asking over 200,000 college freshmen nationwide about the number of their college applications. In 1967, 43 percent applied to only one school and just 20 percent applied to four or more.
By 2006, a huge change had taken place: a mere 18 percent applied to only one and 57 percent applied to four or more.
With the widespread use of the “common application,” it’s not unusual for today’s high school seniors to apply to 10 or more colleges. Applying to college has become a big business and a major family undertaking, measured not in weeks or months, but in years.
10 Do's and 10 Don’ts For Parents
After polling families of high-school students all over the country, we offer this list of 10 Dos and Don’ts to help smooth the way to next year’s college acceptances:
DO remember the application process is about your child’s educational future, not yours. Follow your child’s lead when choosing colleges, for application essay topics and whether and when to tour colleges.
DON’T lead with your opinions at each step of the application process. Let your child evaluate the choices first; then you can weigh in afterwards.
(MORE: How I Learned to Stop Pushing My Children)
DO keep an open mind about your child’s college choices. Remember: you’re looking for the best fit for your son or daughter and the place where he or she will feel the most comfortable and will most want to succeed.
DON’T expect your child to apply to your alma mater or colleges where you know you’d be divinely happy.
DO keep perspective about the application process as a means to an end. Consider setting aside one evening a week or two to discuss the “C-word” (college) or one weekend afternoon for your child to tackle essays and applications.
DON’T let the application process take over your life and your child’s and dominate every conversation.
DO have an honest conversation about how much you can afford to pay for college and how much would have to come from other sources: grants, loans and your student working during the school year or summers.
But DON’T be deterred at this point from having your child apply to places that have a high sticker price. As college costs have gone up, the amount of financial aid colleges provide has gone up, too. Nearly all colleges today adjust financial aid to family income and try to make it possible for the students they have accepted to attend.
(MORE: Advice to Parents From a Boomerang Kid)
DO encourage your child to build a good relationship with the school guidance counselor, go to any informational meetings that are offered and meet deadlines for submitting application materials.
Unless the school counselor is unhelpful or overbooked, DON’T panic and rush to hire a pricey private college counselor who may promise more than can be delivered.
DO ask other parents who have been through the process for their advice.
DON’T believe everything parents tell you from their experiences, unless you can verify it elsewhere.
DO seek information online about the colleges your child might be interested in. Browse websites like for objective evaluations and parents’ perspectives.
DON’T take as gospel what colleges say, online or in person, about their own virtues without getting independent confirmation. Also, don’t generalize too much from one or a few passionate parents’ website ravings, good or bad.
DO find other good sources of information, such as The Princeton Review, which rates colleges based on the feedback of over 100,000 students about their learning experiences.
DON’T rely on resources that are popular but (we believe) are not credible, such as the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the broadly hyped but unreliable source that relies on metrics such as “percent of alumni who donate to the school.”
DO visit the top schools on your child’s list, if time and money allow. Suggest that your child keep a notebook to record first-hand impressions of each campus, since memories can blur once you get home. Some families wait and visit just a few colleges after the student knows where he or she has been accepted and is trying to make a final decision among the options offered.
DON’T make a decision based mainly on a good or blah college visit. Remember, campuses are a lot livelier when school is in session, so arrange your visits accordingly.
DO keep in mind that your student is likely to be more committed and engaged with the college experience if he or she is allowed to have the main influence in selecting a school.
DON’T believe that the choice of college is going to determine the rest of your child’s life, for better or worse.

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
Jeffrey Arnett is the co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. Read More
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