10 Truths of College Admissions for the First Time Parent

April is here and the dust has settled on college admissions decisions. High school seniors across the country have either already enrolled or are making their final choices in a matter of weeks. If you are the parent of one of these students, you are finally exhaling, yet still possibly shaking your head over which schools admitted – or didn’t admit – your child. If you have yet to personally experience this process with your own child, you may have heard a horror story or two about how complicated and competitive this whole ordeal can be.

College admissions tips for first time parents

I’ve been through this process now twice in the past three years, and I thought I knew a lot about it before my oldest even started her senior year, due to numerous nieces and nephews who had gone before. What I didn’t know, was how little I actually knew.

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Pull up a chair and let me share what I’ve learned.

I am not a professional college admissions counselor but I ‘ve experienced this process as the parent of two kids on nearly polar opposite ends of the student-motivation spectrum: one responsible, mature and slightly overachieving girl, and one lazy, procrastinating, late-bloomer boy. (I wish there were a nicer sounding way to describe him, because he is a great kid –  but it is what it is, and he’s happily headed to college, just like his older sister was two years ago.)

I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve lurked on many a website, I’ve chatted up college reps at college fairs, gleaned tips from test prep tutors and listened to countless, enthusiastic guides on campus tours.  My kids have applied to schools ranging from the nationally ranked and “highly selective” to the large, state universities that rarely turn a student away.

My involvement level has ranged from near zero (throwing out a few well-researched opinions) to DEFCON Level 2 nagging.

Let’s just say I’ve earned my College Mom t-shirts.

More than a few fellow parents have recently asked me what advice I’d now give to those about to embark on this journey and I’ve listed them here:

Top Ten Truths about College Admissions for First Time Parents

1. Get Organized

Establish an organizational system that works well for your student and for you. You will be keeping track of many deadlines, costs, application components and communications with schools. There will be more “paperwork” (both electronic and hard copies) than you ever imagined. It is way too easy to lose important documents in random stacks of brochures. File folders and spread sheets will be extremely helpful.


With everything: standardized test prep, campus visits, completing the Common Application, brainstorming essay ideas, and asking for letters of recommendation. The big caveat here is – IF your student is interested in starting early. That whole “leading a horse to water” adage is painfully true throughout this process. Each step must be student driven, and if the desire is not there, it cannot be externally manufactured. You can only do so much as a parent to increase interest and action. Trust me on this one.

3. Which leads to – KNOW YOUR KID

If they are not motivated to be proactive and/or won’t be receptive to a parent being the one to herd them through the lengthy process, hire someone to help, if you can afford to. There are full-service concierge type experts who will guide a student along from start to finish, and there are specialized experts for every separate aspect should a student just want help with test tutoring or essay writing or searching for scholarships. Another idea is to ask your teen’s high school English teacher for help with essay writing during the summer before senior year.

4. Which then leads to: EVERY. SINGLE.THING.

All you need to know about successfully navigating college admissions can be found online and is completely FREE. If your student and/or you have the time and inclination, you can find first rate resources on each piece of the process. Making the time and having the patience to sift through all of it is one hurdle. Acting upon the information is another hurdle.

5. Family Finances and Fit

There really, truly IS a college for every student who wants to go. You need to first decide family finances and then “fit.” Check your egos and be realistic. Look at admitted student profile data on college sites and have your kid apply mostly to schools where they are comfortably within those ranges.

6. Academic Late Bloomers

For academic and motivational late bloomers, be extremely flexible and practical about school choices. Apply to at least a couple of schools with rolling admissions to have options available early and late into the process.

7. Seniors Change

Some students change immensely during their senior year of high school – with regards to college readiness, interest in particular schools and majors, and with how far from home they want to stray. Be prepared for them to change lanes between August and March.

8. There are No Shoe-Ins

You’ve probably heard it a dozen times, and it’s absolutely true: College admissions today are a crap shoot. No one, except for a very few, special cases (like recruited athletes and Nobel Prize winners) is a shoe-in at a competitive college.  Forget what you may have heard about legacies and National Merit Scholars. Many schools that were deemed easy to get into even five years ago may not be today. Help your child – and yourself – to really grasp the competitiveness of the process.  Try to prepare them for inevitable rejections and discuss why they should not take these personally.

9. Focus on Essays

At highly selective schools and Honors Colleges within larger universities, essays can make or break an applicant’s chances. Have your child spend a great deal of thoughtful time writing and editing. When everyone has near-perfect grades, test scores and activities, the essay is the only real place where a student can highlight their unique traits and insights.

10. Cast a Wide Net

Cast as wide a net as your child (and your finances) can manage. Assume nothing about getting into certain schools or what kind of merit aid you may or may not be offered. You may be pleasantly surprised with merit aid offers from certain schools, and you may be shocked at how little some schools offer to the top students.

The Roman philosopher Seneca is credited with the saying, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”  With college admissions, being well prepared and realistic, will give a student the best shot at having the opportunity to be lucky.


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About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

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