College Admissions: Don’t Go It Alone

Dear Moms, We feel for you, we really do. Since your eldest child entered kindergarten, you have probably heard that nothing in parenting compares to the stress of college admissions. Few of us arrive at this stage without feeling anxiety, and, if it is now your teen’s turn to begin the college hunt, read on.

College Admissions: 16 tips to help you and your teen through the process.

Lisa and I are two moms with five kids between our families and we have seen each one through the college process. As kids reach these last few years in high school, they have the end in sight.    “The end” is not only college application season, but also their high school years and childhood in general. Letting them go is part of the college process and one reason why it feels so painful. If you have a high school child, we want to throw an arm around your shoulder, knowing that it is you who needs support right now. So we offer these 16 tips, and a digital hug, to you:

1. Looking for colleges is a family matter.

Do not feel remotely guilty being involved, despite experts who may tell you to let your child “own the process.” It is their search, but parents should be there to lend an ear, a hand, and a credit card as needed.

2. Do not expect your child’s counselor to be omnipotent.

Regardless if your kid is in a mega-public school with slim staffing or a small independent one, there is a limit to what the counselors can (or should) manage. Do not sit back and wait to be told what to do. The best ones will outline parameters, offer sources and give you a timeline, but you and your child need to be proactive.

3. Find one friend with whom you can level.

College admission remains a contact sport and your child may be falling in love with the same school her friends are dreaming about, too. Your kid is told to not discuss his scores or his schools and you are discouraged from this. But it is helpful to find a trusted friend who can be your confidant, the person with whom who you compare notes. If you find a great website, you share it with her. If you are worried about your kid’s scores, this is the person in whom you can confide. They have to be trustworthy and it works best with reciprocity. Moms need the buddy-system now as never before.

4. You do not owe anyone any info.

Remember when you were pregnant with your now-high schooler and perfect strangers would want to come up to you and rub your belly? This is the same phenomenon and you may be taken aback by personal questions about your kid’s scores and choices. Repeat after us, you are not obligated to answer anyone so practice a few stock lines “It’s early in the process, “Still deciding,” “He’s working very hard….” and walk away.

5. Shield your kid from the questions.

Family reunion coming up? Neighbors who are genuinely interested? Tip them off, in advance, that your kid is inundated with who,what,when,where,why and suggest they keep the topics to sports, TV, current events, the family dog….anything but college.

6. College visits are key.

Spring break and summer vacation will revolve around visiting schools with your kid. Clear your calendar and help with the logistics. If your child is interested in playing a sport, this is the time to schedule meetings with coaches at each stop.

7. College visits can be painful.

Time consuming, expensive, and sometimes futile, these trips are also the best way for your kid (and you) to determine if there is a fit. The info sessions will begin to blur and I pity the college reps who know this, yet soldier on trying to make their school sound genuinely different and better than every other college on your kid’s list.

8. College visits do not have to be painful.

You can create an element of vacation if you keep your child’s interests in mind when planning the trip. When traveling with our football-obsessed son, we always sought out the stadium on each campus, first thing, and booked hotels with gyms so he could fit in workouts. With our daughter, locating the cute shopping areas near campus, preferably walkable, was relevant to her college search and added a dose of much-appreciated diversion.

9. College visits are memorable.

Your child may have been too young to remember your family vacations when he was small, but he will remember these trips. Neither of my kids will forget the football coach who chewed and spat tobacco during the interview in his office (gross) or the serendipitous Italian dinner my daughter and I shared with a classmate and his mom (lovely.) There will be a few standout moments so keep your sense of humor and think of the potential for shared memories during these road trips with your kid.

10. College admissions will be rocky at times.

Prepare for meltdowns,  the silent treatment, and standoffs. If your child is a junior now, he has entered the season of stress overload. Just know that these next few months are exactly what people are talking about when they say “junior year.” As a mom, you know how to recognize when your kid needs help and you can create a refuge for her. Sleep is key, comfort food works, too. Rather than piling on the administrative aspects of college hunting to an already over-worked kid, take on the logistical and research burden yourself.

11. Keep your child safe from themselves.

The confluence of kids getting drivers licenses, their legitimate need to decompress, and teen brains craving risk can result in dangerous behavior. This is not the time to let up on supervision. Help your kid by protecting him from a stumble that could have major consequences to his well-being, on every level.

12. Try not to obsess.

Resist the urge to sit at your computer pouring over US News rankings. There is much to learn and college hunting can become overwhelming if you don’t beat it back.

13. Don’t forget about the siblings.

Remember your younger children have to live through this, too. Throughout their lives, they have sat in car seats in carpool lines, endured their elder siblings’ games, and slept through dance recitals. At this point in their lives, try to create a buffer zone for them so they do not have to live through every detail of their elder sibs’ college hunt, long before it is their time.

14. Extra steps are required for athletes.

If you child is an athlete, prepare to devote additional time to the college hunt. First, do you have any objective assessment of how talented your child really is? A swimmer or runner has times and stats but if your kid is a baseball or soccer player…hmmm, not so easy to determine. Consult with your child’s coach, talk to parents who have kids playing that sport in college, and begin to research NCAA rules.

15. Platitudes may be true but who wants to hear them?

“It will all work out, every kid gets into school, this will pass” – none of these are convincing or helpful. People who say these things may mean well but have limited ways to try to comfort you. Feel free to ignore them and their messages.

16. Create family time.

Finally, lure your child out of their college-prep cave as much as possible. Cook their favorite dinners, buy tickets to watch their hometown teams, plan any diversion that can involve siblings and it will be time well spent.

If you are on the steep upper part of the learning curve that we recently jumped off of, we feel for you. I remember when it was my senior awaiting the decisions from her list of colleges; I was surprised to feel a little wistful about this stage of parenting. Though there were times when college admissions felt like trench warfare, I was in the trenches with good company – close friends, my children and husband. There are no other people I would rather have by my side.



  1. says

    Great advice! The ones who say the kids have to “own the process” is unrealistic. The search for a college is a family, love that as it is do true! We had a list of 4-5 schools which we both agreed upon and the choice was made solely by our son from that list. I also like the advice to help with the logistics and research for overwhelmed students. My oldest son is graduating in May with a job waiting. He choose the right school and major for him. We are proud of him!

    • says

      So glad to hear from other moms who have been down this path. Thanks for commenting. Congratulations to your son and enjoy these happy times.

  2. says

    Oh the pain of college admissions…this is such a great list of advice and wisdom. It was definitely the most stressful experience during parenthood for me.

  3. says

    I am an independent college consultant on sabbatical from my practice due to my husband’s health. I agree with much of what you have written, but I do want to say something about “owning the process”. I always say, “it is the student who drives the process”. The college search is a good time to start releasing a bit of your authority…to allow the student to feel some responsibility. It is inappropriate for parents to attend every college planning session with an independent counselor. One of the most common reasons students return during, or after the first year, (meaning they get in trouble, flunk out, panic) is because parents fail to teach their student responsibility. College can be overwhelming…they have to find time to study, to play, to eat, to do laundry, to pay bills and manage money….many parents do not teach their students these important tasks. It is one of my first discussions with parents…start giving them responsibility early on so it doesn’t overwhelm them at once. And yes, what a great time to travel with your child, to be excited with your child, to enjoy being together and planning together. All families are different…but the college search can be a very exciting time for everyone!

    • says

      Tam, thank you for adding your perspective from the vantage point of a consultant in the college ap area. BTW, best wishes for your husband’s improved health.

  4. Carpool Goddess says

    This is a wonderful list, Mary Dell! I kept under the radar, at all times, when both my kids were in the college process. I think some of the parents can be worse than their kids when it comes to over-sharing, bragging, and possibly exaggerating their strengths. I shared and commiserated with my BFF, who’s child was at a different school and was interested in a completely different type of school as mine, other than that my lips were sealed. I also found it helpful for the my kids to jot down notes about each school they visited, so later on all their thoughts wouldn’t be lost or jumbled. Good luck to you and Lisa with your kids college admissions! Sending hugs from a mom who has been there and survived! xoxo

    • says

      Linda, thank you for adding your two cents worth. Sounds like you had the benefit of your good friend, too, so you can encourage other moms out there to seek out their own. Thanks for all kind words and well wishes to our kids.

  5. says

    Something about this made me feel a little weepy. My oldest is only 12 so we have some time, but I appreciate having this list to think ahead about, thank you.

    • says

      Korinthia, many points of parenthood bring out tears and thinking our younger kids going to college is definitely one. Hope you found this helpful for your future, way into your future!

  6. Emily says

    Next year our oldest will embark on that “junior year.” I’m dreading it already, but this post made me dread it just a little bit less. :)

    • says

      Emily, I cannot imagine a better compliment than what you just said. (May I quote you???) Lisa and I hope that we make things a bit easier on parents who are a few steps behind us. We don’t want to add to the anxiety!

  7. says

    I always say that junior year is the time of great dreams when everything is a possibility and students can imagine their future any way they want. Then comes senior year with the sometimes crushing reality of standardized tests, applications, essays and waiting by the virtual mailbox. Your tips are fantastic. Honest, compassionate and practical. Good luck to your seniors and to you as your nest empties.

    • says

      Thanks so much! There is definitely a balance of dreams and reality that is part of the process. Appreciate the kind words and well wishes.

  8. says

    Like Tam, I’m an independent college counselor on sabbatical. This is a great list. I’d add one tip for college visits. Take photos. Sometimes you reach sensory overload and photos will help keep all those campuses straight.

  9. says

    Excellent post, Mary Dell. You captured the whole experience here and remembered two of the most important things which are that parents should be involved in the process, if it’s overwhelming for you, imagine what it feels like for your teenager? And do find a confidant, whether it’s another parent going through the process, or one who’s just been through it and can shed some light on the experience. Good luck to you as you near the end.

  10. Nancy Wareham-Gordon says

    You need to address the conservatory versus the academics for ballet, contemporary dance, drama, music, musical theatre and visual arts students. I found it helpful to schedule a ballet class at an academic college / university. She walked out after class and said, “I do not want to take dance classes with students who have no experience in dance.” In one swoop, five academic based dance programs and schools were then, immediately placed out of consideration; and, our focus remained on the five remaining conservatory programs. It takes considerably more organizational skills to apply to these conservatory based programs, and greater expense of financial resources. For example, many conservatories required not only auditions but also dual applications, e.g., academic and arts, with much earlier application deadlines. It also meant collecting dual recommendations from academic teachers and arts instructors as well as the specific requirements for head shots, an arts resume, video/DVD or portfolios completion. Extra expenses are made in travel costs to the auditions and/or video/DVD submissions. Then, the heart-breaking wait for results as many conservatory based programs admit only 12-to-24 students, world-wide!

    • says

      Nancy, I so appreciate you giving your input on the arts. My kids, and Lisa’s, too, did not purse arts undergrads so the process is not one I can personally speak to. thank you for adding an important dimension.

  11. Jennifer says

    My one disagreement here is that summer vacation and spring break are really NOT good times to make college visits. They are the worst times to visit schools unless you find schools to visit whose spring break does not coincide with your child’s high school’s spring break.

    If a student came looking at your child’s high school in July, how much information could they learn about the school? Could they visit a class? Meet teachers? Meet other students? Get a feel for what it’s like to be a student at that school? No.

    Similarly, most colleges just don’t have that much going on during the summer. Faculty are off doing research, taking vacations and spending time with their families. Students are off on study abroad trips, at internships, working summer jobs, and in many cases living at home and taking summer classes at local community colleges or junior colleges to get ahead. Few can be found on the campus during the summer months. Campus events are few and far between. Most small schools almost completely close down . Your child will not be able to get any sense of what it’s like to be a student at that school on a summer visit, and that’s the main reason for a college visit.

    All those factors and experiences are critical when making college application choices and admission offer decisions. Summer is really the worst time to visit.

    Try to make visits throughout the junior year and early in the senior year, as busy as it is and as hard as it is to get away from school. Your child doesn’t have to visit every single school that he or she is considering. Visit the top choice schools and at least one of the safety schools.

    Then, after offers have come in, and your child (and you) are narrowing the field, make late senior fall visits or senior spring visits to the schools to which your child was admitted and still considers a top choice but has not yet visited.

    Some schools will invite your hard-working admitted applicant for special recruiting events or scholarship interviews too.

    • says

      Jennifer, this is an important point and I appreciate you commenting.

      Having visited schools when kids where there and when they were not, I agree with you that the schools that were not in session had a dullness to them. We had to make compromises in scheduling trips to schools that were, for my daughter, all a plane ride away. She is still waiting most of her decisions and I hope we will have chances to revisit schools during their admitted students events when the kids ARE there. Thanks for adding your perspective.

  12. says

    I think college visits are better with friends in tow – my friends and my son’s friends – or at least that’s what worked for us. The rest of the process does not lend itself to group activities. We traveled with two other boys and their moms. Although the schools didn’t always overlap for all three boys we did visit a lot of the schools together and we definitely took in the sights and the food together. It made the whole process more bearable.

  13. says

    I found you on twitter and have kept up over the last few posts. I am right at the cusp of the college hunt, a sophomore now. I’ve kept my distance as it all seems to chaotic, competitive and daunting. I’m looking forward to calming myself through your posts.
    Thank you.

    • says

      Francie, we are here for you and are wishing you the best. It is a very busy time but one that is transformative in your child’s life and in the life of your family. Enjoy the next twelve months before the major activity kicks in. Keep in touch and let us know how you’re doing.


  1. […] I sat in the car for a moment longer and wondered how something as innocuous as a flower had triggered a panic attack. Perhaps it was a sign, warning me against  viewing the world through the murky lens of college application season. […]