How to Support Your Teen Through the College Application Process

mom and daughter on a laptop

 iStockphoto / AtnoYdur

Nothing is more nerve-wracking and stressful than the college application process. Both teens and parents alike fret about how to make the applications shine so that those acceptance letters start rolling in—especially from the teen's dream college. But just how involved in this process should parents be? Here is an overview of how to support your teen through this process without taking over, being a lawnmower parent, or causing more stress.

Help Your Teen Develop Their College List

Ideally, during your high school student's junior year, you will sit down and start thinking about which colleges are a good fit for your student. Aside from looking at majors, you will need to see if your student has the grades and test scores to be accepted. Generally, this information can be found on the college's website. Other factors to consider are tuition costs, location, and reputation.

Most high school students will pick anywhere from five to 10 schools to apply to. These schools are then divided into "safety schools," "target schools," and "reach schools." The safety schools are the schools your student is likely to be accepted to without any issues. The target schools are those that are a little more challenging to get into, but that your student meets the criteria for. And, the reach schools are those schools with high expectations and low acceptance rates. In other words, these are the schools your student may like to apply to but will be very challenging to be accepted at. Your teen should have one or two schools in each category.

Make Contact With Schools

In order to show interest in the colleges, teens should be encouraged not only to visit the campus and take a tour but also to reach out to their admissions counselors. They might even consider researching some of the professors within the department they are considering and reaching out with a thoughtful email or question about the college. Making contact with the school through a variety of ways demonstrates interest in the school.

And, if your teen has social media accounts, it is always a good idea to follow the college admissions departments of their preferred schools. It's not just is this a great way to gather information, but if they occasionally like or retweet something, this is yet another way to get their name in front of the college's decisionmakers. Just be sure your teen does a social media audit of their own account before following colleges online.

Also, never underestimate the importance of visiting a college on your teen's list. With a limited number of spots in each accepted class, sometimes it comes down to who showed the most interest. Colleges don't want to extend acceptance letters to students who are only applying for the sake of applying and have no interest in attending.

Provide Guidance on Deadlines

Once students have narrowed down which schools they want to apply to, it's important to look through each institution's deadlines. This means reading their guidelines on early action, early decision, and regular decision.

For instance, some schools offer an early action deadline, which allows students to apply early to the schools they are most interested in without committing to attend there. Meanwhile, early decision means that if the student is accepted at the university they are bound to attend there. Some students choose this option because they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if they are accepted, this university is where they will attend. Meanwhile, regular decision is when the bulk of the students apply.

If your student is applying to quite a few schools, it might help to create a calendar with all the deadlines. This way nothing slips through the cracks. It's also important to look at each school's scholarship deadlines, especially if you think your teen might qualify. Many times, these deadlines are prior to the regular decision deadline. So, you don't want to miss out if there is a chance your student might win a scholarship.

Assist With FAFSA Forms

Many schools require students to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) even if they do not think they will qualify for financial assistance. This document is often used during the scholarship process as well to determine need-based scholarships.

Because the FAFSA form requires information from your tax returns, it is important that you assist your student as best you can. It is unlikely that your student will know how much money you made the year prior, as well as any details about your assets.

For this reason, you will want to sit down and fill out the form together as soon as you can. Typically, the FAFSA form is released on October 1 of each year. If your student is applying early action or early decision to any colleges, it would be beneficial to fill this form out as soon as it is released.

Encourage Them to Start Their Essays Early

Most colleges and universities use the common application, which means many will receive the same essay from your student. However, some colleges and universities have additional essay questions that they like to have answered.

Although the common application doesn't open until August 1 each year, many of the general essay prompts stay the same. So, it is a good idea to encourage students to write their essays over the summer. Once a student starts their senior year, they will be swamped with activities, last-minute testing, scholarship applications, and so much more. Having a head start on the college essay portion of the application will be a big help. Additionally, while you can provide advice and even proofread their essays, you really should not be writing the entire essay for them. Colleges can spot a parent-written essay from a mile away. So, you would be doing your child a disservice.

If your student is struggling through the essay and application process, or if they have test anxiety and need help prepping for the ACT or SAT, you might consider hiring an essay coach, a college application coach, or even an ACT tutor. These extras, if they fit within the family budget, sometimes are exactly the help your teen needs to stand apart from the crowd during the application process. But, don't feel like you have to do this. There are many students who apply to colleges and universities and get accepted without outside help.

Trust Them Through the Process

This step is perhaps the hardest part for parents—trusting their kids to complete the college application process on time and in a professional manner. But, you have to do it. This is your teen's first step toward independence. And, if you cannot trust your teen to complete the college application process on their own, how are you going to trust them to complete their college assignments and attend classes without your help and assistance?

For this reason, it is very important that you only help when they ask for it—that you take a step back and let them work through the process. Sure, there is a lot they will need to manage on their own, like asking for letters of recommendation from teachers and putting in transcript requests with the school counselor, but they can do it. Besides, if you rush in and take over for them, you are robbing them of their autonomy and independence. You also are communicating that you don't believe in them or trust their abilities, and that will do more damage than any little mishaps that occur during the college application process.

A Word From Verywell

There is no doubt that the college application process is stressful. For this reason, it's important that you do what you can to remove some of that stress from your teen. Be gentle with your reminders and encouraging with your words as they work on their essays and submit their applications. And remember, things have a way of working themselves out even if your teen doesn't get accepted at the school of their dreams. In the end, they may find that their second or third choice is a better fit anyway.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.