Your Kid Wants You to Read This: 6 Tips to Survive the College Application Process

My son, a senior in high school, submitted his Common Application last month. If you have no idea what that is, then God bless you, you may skip this post.

If you are all too familiar with, not only the Common App, but also terms like, 'SAT', 'class rank', FAFSA and 'early decision', welcome to my hell.

Maybe I exaggerate. Maybe I am just a parent who only wants the best for her son. Or maybe, as my son occasionally thinks, I am an hysterical, controlling freak who doesn't know when to let go of her kid…


What I am is a normal parent of a normal college bound high school senior who sincerely wants her child to succeed in achieving his dream of going to the college of his choice. The problem is that that wish clashes stridently with the heart-ache of imagining him, my baby, leaving us next fall.

That's just life, isn't it? Ugh. Can you hear that? The cognitive dissonance is deafening.

What is a parent to do? Some suggestions:

1) Begin to acclimate yourself to this inevitable step early. Because I counsel a lot of parents, I knew my job as a parent was a temporary position. Of course I will always be his Mom, but I mean that I reared my kids to be resilient, independent, confident, capable adults. If they feel ready to leave the nest at the appropriate time, and they really are, then we've done our job well.

Luckily teenagers have a way of preparing us for the day when they are no longer living under our wing. They spend more and more time with their peers, they ask our opinion less and less and they assure us that they know what's going on, implying that we old codgers really have no idea.

2) Listen hard when your kid says: "That is you, Mom (or Dad). That's not me." Recently my son asked me to read his Common App essay. He prefaced it by saying he thought it was nearly perfect. That should have tipped me off to keep my mouth shut. Instead I red-lined the essay and got all professorial talking about theses and deeper meanings and junk.

Naturally my son got defensive and we spent a good half hour butting heads. His Dad (who thought the essay was fine) stepped in and declared a time out until the next day. After sleeping on it, I realized I was letting my anxiety (see #3) regress me to my own college application process and I had no business imposing that on him. If he made the changes I was suggesting it would be my essay, not his.

3) Acknowledge that emotions are loaded. See #2. Try to compartmentalize where the feelings are coming from and make an effort for all involved to regulate them. Yelling, calling anyone names or saying that with their record they'll be lucky to go to Loser U, is abusive. Stop it. Give yourself a time out; get some sleep.

For most of us I think it's a matter of recognizing the anxiety we as parents are feeling. We wonder what life will be like not to have our kids around next year. We worry about being able to afford supporting them in their college dream. We are afraid of a 'failure to launch' senario. This is all normal. We just need to to watch how much of these feelings leak over to how we relate to our kid.

4) Whenever you can, delegate the role of college app adviser to professional advisers. Having a third neutral party available to defer to when the going gets emotionally tough can really help maintain the peace and keep everyone moving forward, not fighting each other. 

We were very lucky to have a school guidance counselor who knew my son well and guided him, and us, through the process.

If you don't have someone like that at your kid's school and you are having difficulty, try to find one. A good family friend or relative who has gone through the process successfully and is willing to act as app coach, for example.

A lot of parents consider hiring someone as you would a tutor if your child was having trouble with math. Look out for people or companies who promise more than they can deliver. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

5) If you have to set limits, do it early, be direct and gentle. Maybe you need to insist your kid apply to your alma mater, or only local colleges or colleges with significant financial aide packages. If so, do some soul searching to be clear about the reasons, for your sake and theirs. Explain it to them calmly. Allow them to be disappointed. Then help them make good choices within the limits.

6) Be their best cheerleader. Even though your kid looks like an adult and may even act like one, they still need to hear you love them and are proud of them no matter what.

Related post: The Nerve Racking College Application Gauntlet

If you are a parent swimming through the rough waters of your child's college application process please share your wisdom in the comments!


  • Another edge to this that is rarely considered but is still a very valid point is, what if you child has a dream that doesn’t involve a traditional secondary education? There are many vocations that pay very well, are exciting, but don’t always involve degrees or college.
    There is what can be an unhealthy societal obsession with the best colleges, when your child’s dream may be that of a mechanic, heavy equipment operator, a commercial diver, most of which involves a trade school or aprenticeship.
    Right now the market is saturated with college degrees and many graduates are finding themselves in the same dead end crap jobs they worked at getting though college, only now they are in heavy debt with no way out. PBS just did an excellent documentary called ” Declining By Degrees – Higher Education at Risk”, and is a must see. YouTube it.

  • Dear Mac, You read my mind. I tried to be careful when writing the above piece not to sound as if I expected that everyone’s kid was college bound. Not every kid wants to or should go to college right out of high school, maybe not ever. As you say, their dream career may not require an expensive secondary degree. I have clients who are in just the bind you describe–a B.A., a lot of debt, struggling to do the job they really want to do, be it an animal behavior specialist, a salon/spa stylist or landscape designer.
    Recently I ran into the subtle (maybe not so subtle?) prejudice in some high schools where the pressure to have high numbers of college bound kids effects their “success” ranking. An established business woman complained to me that she couldn’t get into the high school job fair. Her businesses include a high end salon/spa and aesthetician academy. We are not talking your grandma’s beauty school here. A state of the art program, these students have to be trained well enough to become licensed by the state to practice their craft.
    On the other hand, I was impressed that at an orientation to college applications for juniors last year, the high school had good representation for the regional junior colleges.
    Here’s a link to the video you suggest:


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