I’m a parent of teens, so I have firsthand knowledge of how difficult it can be to step back and bite your tongue when you feel like things aren’t getting done right. (And maybe don’t let my kids weigh in on whether I’ve quite mastered that biting-my-tongue piece.) While my parenting role has changed over the years, the instinct to guide, teach, and protect my kids from harm— emotional and otherwise—hasn’t gone away.
This gets even more difficult for me when it involves something that seems deeply consequential or relates to something that’s really, really important to my children. My knee-jerk instinct to jump in, advise, and plan just begs to be unleashed.
Applying to college is one of those situations that feels high stakes to a lot of parents. It’s not, really (for some perspective on that, check out this post from Collegewise’s founder, Kevin McMullin, or read this excerpt from Frank Bruni’s Where You’ll Go is Not Who You’ll Be). But that doesn’t stop many parents from feeling like they should do everything possible to help their child with the application process. For a lot of us, it can be hard to take that step back and let our juniors and seniors own their journeys. Here’s why we should.
The outcomes will be more successful if the process is driven by the student. I have vivid memories of trying to get shoes on my daughter when she was a toddler. Let’s just say that we had conflicting opinions about whether being shod represented a fundamental assault on her personal liberty. Did I prevail? Yes, every time. Did the shoes stay on? Not once. Having never bought into the concept, she’d pull them off at the first possible opportunity.
Obviously the circumstances are different when your kids are applying to college, but the principle remains the same. If you’re asking your teen to follow your process, your thoughts, and your plan, they might dutifully follow if your vision aligns with theirs. But not a lot of passion or inspiration comes with doing things dutifully. And, at worst, they may phone it in or even disengage from the work. None of these options are going to lead to great outcomes.
When I’m talking about outcomes, I don’t just mean admissions outcomes. There are lots of ways to gauge success in this process. Was it low stress, maybe even enjoyable? Did the student learn something about themselves? Become more mature? Gain skills and confidence? And then, yes, did they get the acceptances they were hoping for? Having an engaged student drive the process makes it more likely that they’ll see success along a range of these metrics.
Stepping back lets them know you trust their skills and judgment. There’s a subtle message that comes through when parents don’t give their students agency: “We don’t trust you.” “Your efforts won’t be good enough, so we need to run the show.” Not only is that a confidence-killer, but it can feed a cycle where students grow dependent on their parents to get things done. Letting them take control by building their college list, choosing their essay topic(s), deciding what to highlight in their applications, and managing their timelines shows them that you trust them and their decision-making skills. And it will let them build their experience base, competence, and self-confidence in a way that won’t happen if you co-opt the process.
What if you think they’re making a mistake? Well, that’s where the tongue-biting comes in. Then consider what the worst possible consequence would be. If you’re worried their choice might have far-reaching implications, share your concerns in as objective a way as possible. Provide them with the information and insights that they can use to make their own informed decision.
You get to stay in the role of cheerleader, not project manager. By junior year, college becomes a major topic of discussion among friends, and it can completely dominate conversations—and mindshare—during senior year. Kids look for places where they can safely vent about this all-encompassing thing. But if you’re driving their admissions process, it’s not possible for you to be their refuge, too. (It’s a bit awkward to complain to the taskmaster that they’re feeling overworked or stressed that their application may be moving in the wrong direction.)
When they’re in charge, you’re able to take on a single, clear role: supportive parent. You get to be a sounding board and safety valve for your kid. And as an added bonus, you’ll be providing them with the type of support that builds resilient individuals.
If you’re ready to put your student in the driver’s seat, here are two things you can do to help them feel empowered by this step:
- Communicate with them up front. Let your student know when and how you plan to be involved. Be specific about what you will and won’t be doing (yes to providing solicited advice, no to building their college list). Setting clear expectations will help your teen to understand—and hopefully embrace!—their responsibility.
- If they don’t know where to start, ask open-ended questions to help them figure out what they’re looking for in a college (actually, using open-ended questions is a great tool for helping them think through any part of the process). This post from my colleagues on how to approach list-building research can spark conversations to help your child understand their college priorities.
Looking for more advice on how you can help throughout the process? This article from Making Caring Common provides fantastic context and practical tips.
College can feel like a big, bright dividing line: on one side, kids need our help, and on the other, they can start flying on their own. This is yet another reason to let them begin their journey to independence—and to the place they’re going to call home for four years—by owning the process that will get them there. And the best time to start that is now.
About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.