SURVIVAL: Parents Recount What It’s Like When Their Kids Apply to College

The process of applying to college can be even more stressful for parents of high school seniors than it is for the students filling out the applications. Even parents who have already sent an older child to school can find the process overwhelming. It often feels like teaching your child how to drive a car: helpless and fraught with danger.

When we asked parents of students who have just finished their college applications what they would like to share with those of you about to begin the odyssey, a few key themes repeated: it’s overwhelming; it’s hard to know your role; and support systems that you rely upon don’t really help. “The college application process, while daunting for the high school student, is equally challenging and stressful for the unsuspecting parents.”

One parent of a high-achieving Cambridge/AICE student emphasized something that we hear all the time: our modern, internet-based world has created a crush of information. “There were many things that were surprising because it was so different from when I applied to college.  First, there is so much information, data and opinions available for students and parents to sort through without a real basis or understanding of how the admissions evaluation process works…. After a while, all the websites seem to say the same thing, and the admissions talks start to sound the same.”

Unfortunately, the process is ever-changing. You cannot assume that having navigated a child through the application process even a year or two ago will pave an easy road today. Having someone with experience and up-to-date information to guide your child in the thought processes and nuances of constructing endless college essays cannot be emphasized enough. But on whom can you rely?

Don’t expect high school counselors to give you the quantity or quality of help that you want. Regardless of their experience, counselors don’t have a lot of time to devote to individual students. “The lack of human resources available in our high school to help each student that wants to attend college is alarming, because sorting through this information is a full-time job…. The limited funds and resources most schools provide students and their families has not changed from when I was in high school.”

Another parent was even more dramatic: “I was at times astounded by the unhelpful, lackadaisical attitude and sheer incompetence demonstrated by some of the staff upon whom you must rely. That being said, I have nothing but accolades for the overworked guidance counselors who give their all, but are inundated by the number of students and the diversity of those needy souls seeking assistance.”

Students on the cusp of adulthood often need both independence and supervision. Yet without someone to guide them, parents struggle with how involved they should be – or can be – in the college application process. One parent of a usually self-motivated International Baccalaureate student explained the helpless plight: “My biggest challenge was in deciding limits of how much to be involved with the whole process. I felt very uncomfortable with him pushing things to the very last minute. Keeping things organized and making sure my son followed through on the to-do list was hard. In the end, I had to just let him take ownership of the process.”

Another IP parent echoed that sentiment: “The only advice I have for parents: This isn’t about you!”

Leaving home for higher education is a transitional, evolutionary moment for young adults, and the college application process can be maddening. The overriding advice from parents? Get some help. It is often said that “it takes a village” to raise a child, and that is especially true with college admissions. To navigate the process successfully, consider making this a team effort involving students, parents, school counselors, test tutors, and college and career consultants.