Helping Your Teen Stay on Top of College Applications

Carol Katarsky Updated on October 27, 2020

How to Walk the Fine Line Between Over-parenting and Disappearing Act

The time between enrolling your child in Kindergarten and getting them ready for college can feel like an eye-blink. Yet here you are. This is one of the last “childhood” milestones you and your son or daughter will go through together and it’s fraught with anxiety.

As kids prepare to step into independence, they need their parents to help; they also need them to back off at times. Your challenge is to know the difference. We’re here to help. Read on for examples of where you can effectively help and when you need to let your teen take the lead —even when it means watching some questionable choices.

Why your help is needed

Whether you went to college or not, you have one big advantage in applying to colleges that your child lacks: life experience.

Even the most level-headed teen can get caught up in visions of reading in the Quad at Dream U on a brisk fall afternoon and lose sight of the practicalities of actually getting accepted and paying for it.

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Using your perspective to help them think about different aspects of the entire process – where to apply, what to study, what’s reasonable to pay, etc. – can be a priceless gift that helps them achieve those dreams.

So here are some things you can do to help:

Provide insight from your experience – without pushing expectations.
Your child may know exactly what they think they want to study. Or they may have no clue. Discuss these things with them to explore options your child hasn’t thought of.

That doesn’t mean pushing engineering school if they really want to study art. It might mean pointing out that successful artists need to know how to run a small business and a minor in Business Administration or Finance would provide good balance.

Be their logistics pro.
Even organized kids can get lost in the tangle of deadlines and requirements from their high school, testing boards, various colleges and scholarships. If you can help them set up a system to manage the logistics you can reduce their stress and ensure they’re more likely to finish all their tasks. It doesn’t have to be complicated: A dedicated calendar, spreadsheet or similar file will do the trick for most.

Get ready to play banker/loan officer.
Newsflash: College is expensive. And chances are your teen only has a hazy sense of your family’s finances. Start early by looking at your situation to figure out what your child/your family can contribute vs. the anticipated costs of the colleges they are considering. (Hint: Our NitroScore tool is an easy way to do this.) That will give you both a better idea of how much you need to get from grants and scholarships and provide motivation for your teen to keep grades up and apply for scholarships.

Pro tip: Having a solid picture of your finances and all needed paperwork will also make it easier once it’s time to fill out your Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA).

Coach from the sidelines.
No one knows your kid better than you. You may even have insights into their strengths and preferences that they don’t fully understand about themselves. Sharing these – in a nonjudgmental way – can guide their thinking without pushing them in a specific direction.

For example: If your small-town loving kid is eyeing a gigantic state university (or your city kid has their heart set on a tiny but prestigious college), it’s worth exploring how at home they think they’ll feel there and how they can prepare for the transition to minimize culture shock. What you want to avoid is telling them it’s a bad choice. It might or might not be. As a parent, you need to provide them with the tools to make the call and live with the consequences.

Provide emotional grounding.
Applying to college can leave kids feeling frazzled and worried about a future they can’t fully comprehend yet. A few years ago you were soothing skinned knees; today’s version of that role is providing emotional stability during an anxious time.

This becomes even more important if they get a rejection letter from their first-choice college or the financial award letters come in much lower than hoped. These disappointments can feel like the end of the world to a 16- or 17-year-old. You can give them the perspective and advice on back-up plans they need

Where to draw the line

There are some things that parents absolutely shouldn’t do when it comes to applying for college. These are areas where parental involvement can either harm your teen’s chances or rob them of the full experience of achieving this milestone (mostly) on their own.

Don’t be hands off! Applying to colleges is a big project – even more than it was when you may have applied. The consequences of a bad decision are huge and potentially costly. Maybe your teen hasn’t asked for help and seems to have it all under control. That doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s worth checking in from time to time to make sure they don’t need more help.

Avoid ghostwriting the essay. Can you help with brainstorming topics? Yes. Provide feedback and proofreading? Of course. Should you insist on a topic or rewrite sections? Absolutely not. Besides being unfair to your child who deserves this chance to highlight who they are, college admissions pros can spot this from a mile away.

Offer suggestions, not edicts. You and your teen may have different takes on various aspects of the colleges he or she is considering, their field of study, etc. Your thoughts have value, but so do theirs – and they will have to live with them. For example, maybe your kid is gaga over the beautiful campus they saw at their last college visit but didn’t ask about the school’s alarming crime stats. Hear them out about what they liked, acknowledge that, then share your concerns. If you want your child to respect your perspective, you must show similar respect for theirs.

Do not contact the college admissions team, teachers writing letters of recommendation or any other professional to advocate for your kid. Not only are you robbing your teen of the chance to learn how to do this themselves, it is more likely to backfire. If your child can’t handle even the application process, how can a college admissions officer expect them to handle a rigorous college education?

Applying to colleges is stressful and a lot of work. For both of you. But just like every other stage of parenting, you can get through it with some love and patience.

One of the most hair-pulling parts of the college application process is filling out the FAFSA form. That’s something you can provide effective help with. And we can help you with our step-by-step guide to completing this year’s form.

About the Author
Carol Katarsky

Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky

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