Almost daily, parents ask me how they can help with their student’s college application process. Part of my job is to offer very direct, honest advice – based on more than a decade of experience as an Ivy League admissions officer, and more than a decade as an admissions consultant. More often than you might think, parents ignore this advice, making the college application process much harder than it needs to be, and hurting their own children’s chances of getting into college. Do these mistakes look familiar?

  • Second Guessing the School List

One of the most shocking reality checks for many parents is how much the admissions landscape has shifted. Schools that weren’t super selective when they went to college might accept 10% of the applicant pool now, and the bar for admission to the Ivy League is exponentially higher than it used to be. So, after your child has crafted a balanced list, including some schools that are safeties in the current environment, it’s simply not helpful to say things like “If Bobby only gets into school x, he’s not going to college next year.” Or, “Sally has worked too hard to go to school y.”

  • Overestimating Your Student’s Chances of Admission

Similarly, it’s critical to remember that even the most qualified, superstar students aren’t guaranteed admission anywhere, and are unlikely to get in everywhere. Applicants with 4.0’s, a strong legacy history and perfect test scores regularly get rejected – in fact, statistically, they still get rejected at elite schools more often than they are admitted. So, if an admissions professional tells you not to count on admission to any one school, they are looking out for you, not insulting your child or being negative. And it doesn’t help your child succeed to ignore this reality – which is NOT to say that qualified students shouldn’t aim high. It’s just important not to personalize feedback (or some admissions decisions!) and to have a realistic list. To underscore this point, I have worked with multiple clients who have gotten into Stanford and Yale but not MIT or Dartmouth, or Penn and Northwestern but not Miami and Northeastern.

  • Expecting Their Essays to Sound Like You

One of the most demoralizing mistakes that parents make is eviscerating their student’s essays, especially after the student has spent a great deal of time crafting and refining them. There are nuances to the process that parents might not be aware of, like the fact that “Top Ten” lists and other short answer prompts are supposed to showcase personality, and it’s strategic to make them genuine and informal. Furthermore, the essays need to sound like your student – the absolute biggest mistake that parents make is expecting the essays to sound like they were written by a middle-aged professional. This is literally a disaster from an admissions standpoint, as colleges have a very good ear for when applications are really from parents. Hint: It does not help your student get in.

  • Undermining Your Student’s Confidence

Second guessing your student’s school list, essays and other strategic decisions deflates their confidence and undermines momentum. It can also make it harder for them to trust their own judgement, all of which is extremely damaging in interviews and when it comes time for them to choose a school. (And it’s especially confusing for students to hear their parents questioning the competence of guidance counselors or admissions professionals, who are experts, and who have a demonstrated history of success.)

Parents are understandably incredibly invested in the college admissions process. These mistakes often occur as a result of this investment. However, the best way to support your student and optimize their college admissions outcome is to trust them, and let them take the lead in shaping and polishing their candidacy.

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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than $36 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 97% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.