How Much Should You Help Your Teenager With His Or Her College Applications?
Applying to college is serious business. Although applications are designed to be completed by high school seniors, those students are rarely alone in navigating the admissions process. Parents, as always, hover nearby. They wonder if their children can handle the complexities of the process—identifying a short list of schools, writing essays, filling out the forms, making a final choice—or understand the long term implications or financial burden of higher education. They worry their kids won’t get into a school, won’t get into a good school, or won’t take college seriously once they’re on campus.
Some parents choose to observe, insisting their children handle most, if not all, of the application responsibilities. Others are more engaged, taking on items they think their kids aren’t ready, or are too busy, to handle. Reasonable people can disagree as to how best to guide kids as they prepare to leave home. Lisa Heffernan and Devon Corneal have two such contrasting perspectives:
Different kids have different needs. I helped all three of my boys through the admissions process, but I kept a closer eye on my least-organized child. I didn’t think this was the moment, though, to let any of them sink or swim. The costs of a small mistake simply seemed too great. For example, my oldest was applying to an early action school where, he believed, the application was due November 1. I carefully read the forms and the extra material about the art supplement he was hoping to submit. In the details the university noted that if you were submitting an art supplement your application date was October 15. The good news is that I discovered this fact, but the bad news was that my son had five days rather than 21 days to complete his application.
Parents have 18 years to get their kids ready for adulthood and a couple more during which we act as consultants. The college application is a small moment with big ramifications. There were many moments that were far better to let my kids test their adulthood without the training wheels.
Unless your kids have unique educational or physical or psychological challenges that require specific support or interventions, this is the ideal time to let them sink or swim. Unlike Lisa, I don’t think the consequences here are very severe.
There are a myriad of excellent colleges and universities in the United States and your child could be successful in many of them, so if he doesn’t get into his first choice college, he’ll be fine. (Don’t believe me? Take a deep breath and read Frank Bruni’s “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.” You’ll feel better.) If your kid misses a deadline and can’t apply to a particular program or school, she can apply again the following year. A gap year may be just the thing an eighteen-year-old needs to learn how to get organized and focused. If the school your child chooses turns out to be a lousy fit, he can transfer. There’s nothing in the college selection process that cannot be fixed. Aside from a bruised ego or feeling left out when friends head off for freshman year, the damage of screwing up the application process is minimal.
Our kids are capable of more than we give them credit for. High school seniors are about to leave home and start inching their way into the real world. That world is filled with deadlines and complicated forms and scary choices. The college admissions process, while onerous and time consuming, is not particularly complex. Our kids can manage this process fairly independently, and moreover, we should let them.
When our sons started the college process they had only previously seen one or two university campuses. When we asked them what they were looking for in a college we got nothing but blank stares. Small? Urban? Liberal arts? Yeah, it all sounded good. So after meeting with their high school college guidance counselors and getting a sense of the types of schools where they might expect to gain admission, I sat at the computer with them and pulled together a list from what we read on the college’s websites. I went to a public university in California (we live in NY) and my husband was educated in England so we were learning right alongside our kids.
Why didn’t I just leave making a short list of schools up to them? They were, in a word, clueless. They had never been to college, had few thoughts about what college life would entail and every time I suggested another school to research online they were both amenable and indifferent. While the Internet gave them access to the information they needed, there is a sense in which it gave them too much. Researching options together allowed us to talk over some of the pertinent issues—how far away from home, what kind of student body—but it also kicked off a year-long discussion about their views on their own futures.
High school is all about research—book reports, term papers, where the coolest party will be on Friday night, or how to convince your parents to buy you a new iPhone. Our kids are experts. With a click of the mouse they can pull up statistics about any school they want, compare programs, look at campus videos and pictures, and review a host of factors about any school in the country (or abroad for that matter). There is no reason parents should be involved in picking a list of schools.
We left this entirely to our son. Our involvement was limited to talking with him generally about college before he started his formal research. We asked him what he thought he might want to study, where he might want to live, whether he wanted an urban or suburban experience, and what size school appealed to him. Once we all understood what his initial thoughts were, we sent him on his way and asked him to come back to us with a list of colleges that he thought fit that criteria. We capped the number of schools he could apply to seven (call us crazy, but applying to 20 schools seemed insane) and suggested his list include a safety school, schools he should get into, reach schools and a dream. He handled this step of the process without any help from us.
DO NOT. WRITE. YOUR. KID’S. ESSAY. I implore you. This is a waste of time. Admissions officers can spot an essay written by an adult after the first sentence and wouldn’t you rather be having a cocktail? It is also undermining and infantilizing. Discuss topics with your teen if he’s stuck. Offer to proofread essays once they are finished. Do not revise and rewrite. Your kid may write a terrible essay that fails to convey the real obstacles he’s overcome or the unique characteristics that make him stand out from a crowd. That’s a shame, but that’s life.
I have friends who help kids write their college essays for a living. I have no doubt they are good at what they do and that some families want that kind of support. I am even sure that the kids who have that help produce beautifully polished essays. The point of an admission essay, however, is to help a college discover who your son or daughter really is, how he or she thinks, and yes, how he or she writes, without professional polishing and revisions. If your child has passed his or her high school English classes, he or she is fully capable of writing an essay for a college application.
I agree completely that parents should keep their hands off their kid’s essays. First of all, parents have no business doing their kid’s work. Secondly, we have no idea what colleges want. And finally, this is an emotional cesspool that you do not want to swim in. However, I don’t agree that kids should write their essays unaided.
My kids worked on their essays with one of their high school English teachers. Teachers will not do the work for kids, they are not in that business. But they will probe a kid about their intended topic and ask questions, demand succinct writing and reject work that is not good enough. Teachers will encourage and correct and challenge a kid to do their very best work, without the emotional entanglement that parents bring.
The Common App makes the form part of the process a lot easier than it was when I applied to college. Gone are the days of requesting individual paper applications from schools and filling them in by hand or with a typewriter. (White-Out, you were a good friend, but I’m glad you’re no longer a part of my life.) Your kid can handle this. Since the Common App asks about parents’ work and educational background, you may need to give your kids information they don’t have (think graduation dates and specific degrees), but otherwise, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to figure this out on their own. We left this to our son and didn’t bother to review it.
The only exception we made was for financial aid forms. Because we are footing the bill for college, and because we don’t believe our kids should have access to our financial information, we took on the FAFSA. Ron Lieber is rolling his eyes right now, but so be it.
Other than the paperwork at the DMV, the Common App was the first set of grown-up forms that my kids had ever completed. And while I let them fill out their backgrounds and ours by themselves, I stayed nearby because there was a litany of questions that never seemed to end. How many hours a week did they do an activity? Well, it varied. If the job started as volunteer and later was paid, which category does it go under? Hmmm, not sure. In theory I could have left them on their own for this one, but that would have meant ignoring a string of questions that all began with the words, “Mom, what do you think they mean when they ask…?” After I had answered all of their questions did I let them take if from there? Absolutely not.
They printed the application and then together we proofread every word. In the process they thought of things they wanted to change and so we did it all again. I wouldn’t turn in a piece of writing to an editor without someone looking it over for mistakes and typos and I felt the same way about my kids and their Common App.
If you’ve done your job up to now, the final decision about where to go should be your child’s. Assuming they’ve selected a list of schools that will provide them with a solid education, and you’ve been upfront about the financial constraints and realities of each choice, the schools on their final list should be schools your child likes and can afford. It doesn’t matter which school you prefer, let your son or daughter pick. After all, they’ll be the ones doing the heavy lifting from here on out. (Except on moving day. You’d be surprised how heavy dorm supplies are.)
If your kid is accepted to more than one college and he doesn’t have a clear favorite among them, it is not time to walk away. In the same way I would talk to a friend or a spouse about job options, I pondered my kids’ colleges choices with them. In that brief window colleges allow between March and May to make the decision we visited the schools that had accepted them (this is totally different from the original visit and very useful) and then we made lists of the pros and cons, talked to kids who had graduated and revisited the issue of what each child wanted from college. The Common App had been submitted nearly six months ago and in the life of a 17-year-old that is eons. So together we talked through what they hoped to experience in the next year, I offered them my frank opinions, and then they pushed the button.
Authors’ Note: Despite our very different approaches to the application process, our children have all gotten into college and, more than that, are on track to graduate.
Lisa Heffernan is the author of three business books, including New York Times Business Bestseller Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success. She co-writes a blog Grown and Flown and her work has appeared in Forbes, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and other publications. Lisa is married and has three sons.
Devon Corneal is a writer, recovering lawyer, mother and stepmother. A policy wonk, litigator and academic in her prior lives, Devon now writes about parenting, child and adolescent development, children’s literacy, and women’s issues for sites including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, and her blog, www.cattywampusblog.com.
Join us on Twitter this Thursday, 9/17, at 1:00 EST, for a discussion with Lisa, Devon, and Brain, Child staff members on parental involvement in the college process. We’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives. Use the hashtag #braindebate.