When my oldest daughter was getting ready to apply for college, my husband and I were clueless on how to help her. It had been years since the two of us had gone through this process ourselves and so much had changed.
The College Selection process
We had no idea how to advise her on where to apply, which standardized tests to take, or how to pick an essay topic. Our lack of experience wound up making the process more stressful than it needed to be. We took advice from the wrong people and argued amongst ourselves mostly out of frustration.
Luckily, in the end, my daughter wound up at a college that was a good fit for her. But her experience had a lasting impact on my husband and me. When it was time for our second daughter to go through the college selection process, we learned from our mistakes.
Here’s some of the things we did wrong:
Parent College Mistakes
1. Believing a college counselor would handle everything.
We decided to hire a private college counselor for our oldest daughter to guide her through the process. The counselor was highly recommended and in many ways she simplified the process for my daughter. She did a great job of making sure my daughter met application deadlines and reviewed her essays and applications for errors prior to submission.
But the counselor also created a false sense of security. We didn’t encourage our daughter to do enough research on her own about schools, programs, scholarship opportunities etc. Instead, we overly relied on the counselor’s suggestions. Had we been more informed and insisted our daughter to do more legwork on her own, we think she would have made some different decisions and felt more confident.
2. Not starting to think about the process until the end of junior year.
Trying to remember all of a student’s accomplishments for multiple busy years of high school can be tough.
Here is a simple tip. From the start of freshman year, have your student create a file on their computer or keep a notebook of their extracurricular activities, awards, volunteer roles, etc. Having a running list made filling out applications a less painstaking process for my younger daughter.
3. Not developing a relationship with the high school guidance counselor.
Because we hired a private college counselor, we didn’t think it was important that our daughter establish a strong relationship with her high school guidance counselors. But a high school guidance counselor has insights and access to a great deal of information that a private counselor does not. Plus, a student’s high school guidance counselor can write a student recommendation—and the better the counselor knows the student, the better the letter.
4. College visit overload.
We started visiting colleges too late with our older daughter. We ended up scrambling and seeing too many colleges at the same time. This caused major overload. She had trouble evaluating the schools because she was seeing so many in such a short period of time. Colleges she saw when she was tired or not in the mood were off her list without a fair assessment.
With our younger daughter, we incorporated some college visits into our family vacation plans. These more casual visits helped her to decide on criteria such as large vs. small schools and city vs. more rural campuses. By junior year, she could determine her target schools a little better based on her grades and interests, and revisit colleges that seemed like a good match.
5. Staying on the Tour
What we discovered with our older daughter is that you don’t always need to take the tour. While it can be a good overview, tours start to blend in with one another and may not provide students with the information they really need to evaluate a college. Some better ways to determine if a school is a good match for a student is to sit in on a class, have lunch with a current student or stay overnight in the dorms.
Most importantly, however, is we learned to relax our second time around, as we were much less anxious. The last thing that students applying to college need are stressed out parents—they are already dealing with enough internal angst.
The second time around, we knew it would all work out—and we were able to convey this to our daughter so that she felt it would too.
With our second daughter, the process was still stressful but we were able to be more of a support to her. We guided her with more confidence based on our prior experience.