How Much Should You Help Your Teenager With His Or Her College Applications?

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, Follow her on Twitter @dcorneal. 

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.

Becoming a Mom Earlier in Life/Becoming a Mom Later in Life

Becoming a Mom Earlier in Life/Becoming a Mom Later in Life

How does the age at which you become a mother affect the shape of your life? Lisa Heffernan had her first son in her early thirties and Estelle Erasmus had her daughter in her mid-forties. Though the women are roughly the same age now, one of them has a Kindergartener in the house and one of them has an empty nest. Here they discuss the pros and cons of their respective situations.


I Became a Mother in My Early Thirties

By Lisa Heffernan

lisaheffThere is no ideal time to start a family, no perfect moment when all the pieces come together. In my immediate family, for example, we have seen new parenthood as young as 17 and as old as 47. My brother and my husband’s sister are exactly the same age and yet this year one became a parent and the other a grandparent. Welcoming a baby is something that is almost always accompanied by great joy, but that doesn’t mean the experience isn’t altered by the age at which you do it.

When I became pregnant with my first child, I was on the younger side, by today’s standards at least. Many of my closest friends were single and most of the ones who were married did not have kids yet. Suddenly I felt quite alone and utterly lacking in confidence. For nine months I wished I had friends with whom to share the experience and feared I would be truly lost once my baby arrived.

Within days of my son’s arrival I was invited to join a local baby group with other mothers who had given birth in recent weeks. A few of the women were my age but most were older. If there was one thing that put me at ease in that first year we spent meeting together, it was the realization that even those first-time mothers, who were a decade older than I was and had long successful careers, were feeling equally insecure about their new role. Confidence in motherhood, I have learned, comes with being a mother. And, in that group, we were all starting at square one.

That being said, it is an undeniable fact that fertility wanes with age, particularly for women. While becoming a mother younger doesn’t guarantee anything, it does shift the odds in your favor. And with more time, there is perhaps the option of more children, siblings spaced further apart, and the probability of fewer health risks to both mother and child.

As a woman who started her family earlier rather than later, I didn’t have my thirties to myself, but I feel that I had something better. I don’t wish I had done more before my kids were born, because after they emerged from toddlerhood, we had our adventures as a family. Whether it was something as simple as trying a new food or as thrilling as watching the look of astonishment on their faces as we disembarked at the Venice train station and beheld the Grand Canal, sharing the novelty made it better. My awe and wonder at the world has only been enhanced by experiencing so much for the very first time with my children in tow.

Having kids younger turned out to be a positive for my career as well, despite the prevailing wisdom that it is important to establish yourself, to build up some credibility and seniority before incurring the disruption of becoming a parent. I was a Wall Street trader before I had my kids. After they were in school, still in my 30s, I was able to completely start over and become an author.

In her seminal piece on women and work, Ann Marie Slaughter notes that, “Many of the top women leaders of the generation just ahead of me—Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, Patricia Wald, Nannerl Keohane—had their children in their 20s and early 30s, as was the norm in the 1950s through the 1970s. A child born when his mother is 25 will finish high school when his mother is 43, an age at which, with full-time immersion in a career, she still has plenty of time and energy for advancement.” In her own life, having had her children at 38 and 40, Slaughter discovered that the most demanding years of her career coincided with her children’s adolescence, a situation which became untenable.

While the case for being a young mom almost always includes the argument that you will have more energy while your kids are small, I think this misses an equally important point. Do we really have more energy at 26 as opposed to say, 36 or 43? If so, it is marginal. But having kids younger does increase the chances of being a much younger grandparent. My father-in-law was in his mid 50s when my children were born. This means he has been able to enjoy everything from soccer to whitewater rafting to college visits with my sons and he has had the incomparable joy of watching them grow up as a vital presence in their lives. His relative youth has been a blessing to him, and them.

Life takes a major turn when our kids leave home. Having kids young means that, when your nest empties, you are not facing retirement but perhaps the best years of your career and the chance to take on new and even greater challenges. All around me I am watching friends who have become empty nesters in their 40s immersing themselves in a second career with decades of time in front of them in which to develop. Some parents find that after the day-to-day demand of having kids at home is over, there is a sense of liberation and excitement. The kids are launched, the career established or just beginning for the second time around and life feels full of possibility all over again.

Suddenly there is a release from the tyranny of the school schedule. Dinner out with friends on a Sunday night? Sure. A weekend away that starts on Thursday? Why not? What is less exciting is being among the last of your friends with kids still at home, watching all of this newfound freedom from the carpool line.

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. 


I Became a Mother in My Mid-Forties

By Estelle Erasmus

estelle_BLOG“You must be so happy. You must have wanted a baby forever,” the labor nurse said, smiling, as my husband and I left the hospital with our baby girl. After seeing me give birth in my forties, she must have imagined that motherhood had always been my dream. She was wrong.

I told my husband when we were dating that I didn’t want to have kids, that I didn’t think I was the maternal type. After a year of marriage, I saw what a great dad he’d make and convinced myself that I could also be a caring and capable parent. We faced my age-related infertility together and, with a little assistance from modern medicine, in midlife I became someone I never thought I would be: a mother.

Becoming a mother has been the most transformative event of my life. Doing it in my forties, I join a growing portion of the population. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control in 2012, the birthrate decreased for women below 30, but increased for women ages 30-44, with the greatest surge for women ages 40-44.

Since opting to stay home to raise my now five-year-old daughter, I am thankful that I first prepared my career as a journalist, author and magazine editor. The work of early motherhood is hard, and I don’t think I could have split my focus between building a career and being a mom to a small child. I can enjoy my daughter now without resenting her for holding me back, because I’ve already accomplished so much.

Adventure travel was also a big part of my life: I’ve tracked lions on foot on Safari in South Africa, flown to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and white water rafted a Class 5 river in the Western Canadian Rockies. I would not have been able to have those experiences with a baby or toddler in tow.

When I check Facebook I am constantly reminded of the dichotomy that while I am celebrating milestones such as my daughter losing her first tooth and attending Kindergarten, my contemporaries are celebrating college acceptances, weddings, or the birth of their first grandchild. I am sincerely hoping that, unlike me, my daughter finds the love of her life earlier on, so that I have the opportunity to be a grandmother. I also see some of my age-mates clearly showing signs of midlife crisis: affairs, divorces, radical career changes. My husband jokes that I don’t need to worry about having a midlife crisis. Mine was having a baby.

I am very lucky I had a child later in life because I would have made a terrible mother in my twenties and thirties. It took me a long time to develop emotional maturity, and even longer to find the right partner. Now I can call on my own past experience—the bitter and the sweet—to help me navigate parenting my daughter.

There have been challenges. I had to tap into my hard-earned emotional resources when my daughter was born, because I felt isolated, lonely and clueless, and had no local friends with babies—most of them were well past that stage. I literally grabbed my first mom friend, by accosting her husband in my building’s elevator. He was with his four-month old daughter, and I insisted that he give me his wife’s number. Gradually, I built up a support structure through a local community of moms.

Community is also important to us for our daughter’s sake. Because of how old I was when I had her, she is an only child, and the cousins who are closest in age to her live in Australia. We enrolled her in a school that goes from Kindergarten until 12th grade, so that hopefully she can find long-lasting friendships that will become as close to her as family.

I’m also confronting the issues faced by my increasingly fearful septuagenarian parents, who have been losing their friends at an alarming rate, and depend on having me around. They need more help on a daily basis than they will admit. My dad broke his hip three years ago, and although he has recovered, his physical and cognitive capabilities have diminished; my mom suffers from high blood pressure, which must constantly be monitored. I worry (and feel emotionally torn and guilty) that I can’t be there for them the way they need, as my time is increasingly taken up by the demands of raising a young daughter. Because of this realization, my parents are looking at independent living facilities near my sister, who has more availability, since she is now an empty nester.

I am in good health and in good shape, I have a wide network of friends, a solid marriage, fulfilling work, and longevity runs in my family, so I plan to be standing firmly by my daughter’s side as she graduates from college and later walks down the aisle. Plus I feel young at heart—that’s the magic of seeing the world anew through the eyes of a child—and a study in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that having such a positive attitude will help me to live longer.

I was not interested in being a mother for most of my life. It was never my dream. But becoming a mother in midlife has allowed me to pave the road for my daughter’s emotional resilience with the wisdom borne out of my many, many mistakes. And that is a gift that will last her into a future that I hope to share with her for as long as possible.

Estelle Erasmus has been published in numerous publications including Marie Claire, The Washington Post, and National Geographic Traveler. She blogs at Musings on Motherhood & Midlife and tweets at @EstelleSErasmus.

Editors’ Picks: Some of Our Favorites from 2014

Editors’ Picks: Some of Our Favorites from 2014


On Shame and Parenting

onshameand parentingBy Adrienne Jones

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.




Brave Enough

sunsetBy Jennifer Palmer

She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.





For Life

For LifeBy Sarah Kilch Gaffney

We named her Zoe because it means “life” and we could think of no meaning more fitting for our child.





This is Adolescence: 16

This is 16 artBy Marcelle Soviero

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.





Till Death Did They Part

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 12.57.07 PMBy Molly Krause

When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.




Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 5.04.33 PMBy Dawn Davies

At 6:15 a.m., take the children downstairs for breakfast because, even though you are exhausted, the onus is on you. It is always on you.





My Daughter at the Blue Venus

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 12.03.52 PMBy P.L. Lowe

She tells me she is not allowed to give lap dances or blowjobs. She smiles kindly, reassuringly, as she tells me this, as if I have been waiting for this exact information, secretly hoping she will divulge such details to assuage my motherly worries.




Bury My Son Before I Die

Bury My Son Before I DieBy Joanne De Simone

It goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.





The Boob Tube

boobtubeBy Susan Vaughan Moshofsky

On my second day in the hospital, the nurse worried that Rachel was getting little, if any, milk, so she suggested formula supplementation. I refused, determined to succeed. New mom though I was, I knew that supplementing was the Dark Side.


Stalking My Kids

Stalking My Kids

What is Motherhood? is a Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?

This post is republished with permission from our friends at Grown and Flown.

By Lisa Heffernan

NYCNightlifeWhen my kids were little they stalked me.  They followed me from room to room, they banged on the bathroom door and almost never left my side. Sometimes I loved it, sometimes it made me mental, and sometimes I worried they would never successfully separate.  I wondered why they wanted to be with me so much, stalking day and night.  I thought it might be a little like our Labrador who follows me around every evening hoping to be fed.  Yet they still seemed to want to be with me even after they knew how to open the refrigerator door.  Now I find, it is me, stalking my kids.

Sometimes I would say to them, why do you want to come with me?  I realized that whatever I was doing would be slowed down by their presence and when I was in a hurry, I felt frustration.  But they wanted to be with me, even if the task was tedious, and irrelevant to them. If I just wanted to roam, they wanted to know where we were going. I loved being with them, loved everything about their presence, but their questions could wear me out.  They seemed happy just to be with me. Then it struck me.  They wanted my life.  They wanted to be able to go where they wanted and do what they wanted.  They wanted to call the shots and be the person who made things happen, even if it was just going to the grocery store or, on a good day, Toys R Us.

Now they have that life.  Two are grown, out the door, and the third is in possession of a driver’s license.  The eldest has an apartment for the summer and the middle one left days ago to squat on his brother’s couch and soak in the City Life.

And now I find I want to stalk my kids.  I want to be 21 years old and see New York City anew. I want to live in an apartment with almost no belongings and hold impromptu parties on Friday nights feeling no compulsion to provide my guests with anything other than cheap beer.

So last night I was stalking them.  With the feeble excuse of bringing some extra sheets for the couch surfing brother, I drove into NY to see them.  I followed them from room to room looking at the apartment, I talked to one through the bathroom door and helped carry garbage to the downstairs.  I wandered the building’s basement and asked where the laundry room was and if the closed door was a gym.  I asked about work being done in the hall and why they had left the air conditioner on when they went out.  They looked at each other, with an expression that could only have said, “This would have been faster without her.”

When we left the apartment it was late and dark and I asked where we were going.  I was told, “We will find something, Mom.”  We stopped at a small take-out and picked up falafel and humus.  We wandered over to a teeming Union Square with bags of wonderful smelling food.  All the benches were full and my kids sat themselves down on some steps. The ground was dirty, my pants were white and I had a handbag that I would not have set down on my own clean kitchen floor.  The air was sticky and humid and teens swirled around us on the skateboards. The person next to me was blowing smoke in my direction and there were buses idling on the road nearby emitting noxious fumes.  But I was just happy to be with them.

Photo credit: Tasayu Tasnaphun

On Grown and Flown, Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Endlich Heffernan reflect on parenting middle, high school and college kids. Follow them on Facebook  or Twitter.

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