10 Things Parents of College-Bound Students Need to Do

Manage time and emotions in the college admissions process.

From the application to the dorm drop-off in the fall, the college admissions process can be stressful for the entire family. The deadline-driven admissions process can be laborious and often confusing as students make their first major financial decision of their young lives. Once a student is accepted into a school, families have to make decisions about paying for college as well as think through many other aspects over the next four or more years. But with the right approach, admissions doesn’t have to be overwhelming for college-bound students. Plan for the financial, emotional and time commitments necessary for a smoother transition at every stage.

Research colleges together.

Families should start the college search together. Doing so early can help because it allows families to break the admissions process down into steps across a long timeline, which can make it seem like less work. “If you’re starting the conversations your sophomore year (of high school) and starting to visit schools, and have a nice timeline laid out, that can really help alleviate stress,” says Eric Nichols, vice president for enrollment management at Loyola University Maryland. A long, well-planned timeline can reduce stress for everyone in the college search and prevent families from having to make hasty decisions based on last-minute actions.

Let your child lead.

The admissions process isn’t the time for parents to relive their glory years and what they loved about their college experience. The focus should remain on the child, experts say. While parental contact with colleges is both normal and expected, parents shouldn’t take over. “Don’t try to overstep in terms of being the spokesperson for your son or daughter in the admissions process,” Nichols says. “It’s always good for the student themselves to be reaching out asking the questions. You can encourage them that they should be doing that, but it always tends to be better if the student is advocating for themselves rather than the parent doing it on their own.”

Establish autonomy early.

Teens often need help navigating the adult world, but coddling kids can backfire when they get to college and are suddenly thrust into a life that isn’t all planned out for them. Families should work on establishing autonomy in high school so that the less-structured college experience doesn’t come as a shock when students arrive on campus. “Obviously, it’s really easy for kids to rely on mom and dad when they’re at home, in high school,” Nichols says. “And it can be a tough transition at first when a student goes away to college, and they don’t have mom or dad there to advocate for them. So they need to be able to do that themselves.”

Discuss what everyone wants out of college.

Student and parent priorities aren’t always aligned. While the parent may be more interested in outcomes, the child may be more interested in vibrant student activities. Jennifer Bernstein, founder and president of admissions consulting firm Get Yourself Into College Inc., encourages family meetings to discuss the findings of independent college research conducted by both students and parents. “This approach is transformational in terms of helping students learn what it really takes to make an informed decision about colleges and in setting a respectful, empowering, and open-minded approach to evaluating schools because each ‘side’ (student and parents) is coming to the table with their own insights,” Bernstein wrote in an email.

Create a financial plan.

As parents think about paying for college, experts recommend talking with their teen about budgeting and student loans. Part of that conversation should be about the financial commitment that the parents and the child are responsible for, says Collin Palmer, director of undergraduate admission at the University of Toledo in Ohio. This discussion should happen early, he says. “I think that conversation about what we’re able to afford, what the family is willing to pay, and also the debt burden that the student is willing to take on is important before they are fully invested in the search for the right campus for them.”

Look for merit aid early.

Don’t get sticker shock when looking at tuition. The costs listed on colleges websites often don’t reflect what families actually pay once merit aid is factored in, which families can think of as a tuition discount. “In sophomore and junior year, I urge students and parents to look into merit-based scholarships at colleges that are a good fit for them,” Bernstein says. “Merit-based scholarships from colleges themselves are often the largest and most steady forms of funding that you don’t have to pay back. Learning about the criteria for these scholarships ahead of time helps you take strategic action to ensure you’ll be a top candidate for them.”

Visit campuses in person or virtually.

Being on campus can help students imagine themselves there. And while the coronavirus has added challenges to college visits, options are still abundant — even if tours look a little different now or come with pandemic-related restrictions. Hafeez Lakhani, president and founder of Lakhani Coaching LLC, says that families should ask about self-guided tours, limited in-person tours and opportunities to connect with schools virtually. “The key for both students and families is to avoid doing nothing simply because of COVID. These students will still need to find the right college for them, even if this is a supremely abnormal year,” he wrote in an email.

Manage the collective stress.

The best way to manage the stress of college admissions, experts say, is to get ahead of it by planning the process over a long timeline. “The single best way I have seen is to have a timeline in place so that the numerous responsibilities don’t start jumbling up,” Lakhani says. He adds that students should plan when they’ll take admissions exams, visit colleges, ask for letter of recommendation and more. “Spacing things out on the timeline to allow dedicated focus on just a few tasks at a time is wise.”

Keep students on track with deadlines.

One area that Palmer suggests parents pay close attention to is making sure teens are meeting deadlines throughout the admissions process. Missed deadlines may equal missed opportunities, whether that’s enrolling at a certain school or earning extra money for college. Parents should pay extra close attention to deadlines for scholarships and other forms of financial aid because missing those dates may mean more of the burden of paying for college shifts to the family, with the parents picking up additional costs or the student borrowing more.

Deal with rejection.

Considering that some colleges have acceptance rates in the single digits, getting into certain schools can be highly competitive. While that isn’t the norm nationally, selective colleges reject more students than they accept every year. “Remember, that in selective admissions, it is not personal,” Lakhani says, adding that colleges are often juggling multiple factors beyond the student’s control when admitting a class. Rather than focusing on getting into one dream school, Lakhani encourages students to develop a list of schools that they’ll be happy to spend four years at, no matter where they get in.

Find the right fit in the final decision.

Experts encourage families to look beyond brand names when choosing between colleges and focus instead on what matters most to them. Palmer says families often balance pragmatism and emotion when choosing a school. Some, for example, choose a college because it’s affordable while others may choose one based on their attachment to it. Ultimately, families need to find the right balance, and admissions pros suggest digging in even deeper when making the final choice, which may include another visit or participating in virtual activities to get a sense of what it’s like to be a student on that campus.

Talk about safety.

At college, teens may be living on their own for the first time with all the extended responsibilities and freedom that come along with independence. Parents should talk to teens about the dangers of engaging in harmful sexual activities and abusing drugs and alcohol. Don’t just lecture, experts say. Explain what your teen should do if he or she or a friend ends up in a compromising situation. Parents should also take time to look at the safety of each school by exploring campus crime statistics available online. Since colleges are required by federal law to report campus crime statistics, parents can find information on drug and alcohol violations, sexual assault, hate crimes and various other illegal activities reported by the school.

Set communication guidelines.

Some parents may feel forgotten when their child zips off to college and begins building a life that is fully his or her own. Experts say that establishing communication guidelines can help families stay in touch as their student becomes less reliant on them. In addition to scheduling regular check-ins, parents may also want to find ways to connect to the broader college community, such as participating in family days on campus or joining social media groups for parents at that particular school. Regardless of the details of the plan, make sure it’s established before students head to college.

Learn more about colleges.

Get more advice about how to choose a college and check out the complete rankings of the Best Colleges to find the school that’s best for you. For more tips on selecting a college, connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook.

Advice for college-bound students and parents

— Research colleges together.

— Let your child lead.

— Establish autonomy early.

— Discuss what everyone wants out of college.

— Create a financial plan.

— Look for merit aid early.

— Visit campuses in person or virtually.

— Manage the collective stress.

— Keep students on track with deadlines.

— Deal with rejection.

— Find the right fit in the final decision.

— Talk about safety.

— Set communication guidelines.

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10 Things Parents of College-Bound Students Need to Do originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 03/23/21: This slideshow has been updated with new information.

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