For a parent, one of the most challenging parts of the college application process can be figuring out the appropriate level of involvement.  Should you micromanage every part of your high school senior’s college search, from scheduling testing and college visits to reviewing the essays?  Or is it better to let your children figure this out on their own?  As an admissions consultant I have seen many different successful models. Although each family is unique, here are some guidelines that can help you establish the optimal balance:


  1. Start Early. To alleviate some of stress surrounding the college admissions process you should start as early as possible.  Ideally, your family should begin to discuss tests and finances, as well as visiting schools, when your student is a junior in high school, if not before.  This gives you time to narrow down options without undue time pressure.
  2. Create a timetable.  High School students are busy, and it can be tempting to leave essays, recommendations and the applications themselves to the last minute.  This never results in the strongest applications, and can cause incredible family stress.  I suggest that you set generous deadlines for the major application milestones, and that you stick to them.  For instance, you might decide to have schools selected and testing finished by August, to have common application essays written and polished by the time school starts, and to execute the application itself and write supplements at least two weeks before the relevant deadlines.  Leave more time than you think you need – if your student gets the flu or has to travel out of town for a sporting event you can still manage to finish everything on time.
  3. Establish Family Norms. Work together to draft a set of rules for how your family is going to collaborate throughout the admissions process.  Decide whether or not you are going to limit college talk to certain days (or times of the day) or whether nightly dinner conversations are allowed.  Will parents review essay drafts, and who gets to decide where to apply and when to visit schools?  Is the student solely responsible for keeping on track, and what are the consequences for falling behind schedule, if any?
  4. Talk about Money.  It is no secret that college is expensive.  (To help figure out what you may have to pay, use a tool like One of the most important things that you can do as a family is to have an honest discussion about finances.  In addition to talking about scholarships and how to pay for college, this conversation should include a budget for the application process itself.  Testing, school visits and the applications themselves all cost money, and it is a good idea to establish a realistic family plan.
  5. Try to have fun.  Although applying to college can be stressful, it does not have to be.  If you start early and communicate expectations it can actually be a terrific bonding experience. This is an opportunity for your kids to learn more about your choices and background, and for you to understand more about their interests and aspirations.  School visits can be memorable and interesting, and parents are often very pleasantly surprised by their children’s level of focus and maturity. With some planning, helping guide your high school student to the best college for them can be an exciting, gratifying process.


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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 $70 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 98% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.
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