Being a mother with a child going through the college process is a little like child birth — while it’s happening it’s sooooo painful, but when it’s over you look back and think it wasn’t that bad (but it really was!).
So if you’re a parent with a high school student, gather as much advice as you can. Navigating college admissions and financing is as much a rite of passage for parents as it is for students.
1) Start learning about the college process way before your child’s high school tells you to.
Since this was my first time through the college planning process, I can’t say I executed well on this piece of advice. Quite honestly, it was the winter of my daughter’s junior year as I sat listening to her school’s parent presentation on “What’s Important to Colleges” that I realized I was already behind the eight ball in understanding the process (and why didn’t the school give this presentation in the spring of 8th grade, before starting high school??).
I know every list of advice about college planning includes starting early, but it is so true! By the time your child is in the middle of junior year, their academic and personal profile is almost complete for what will be presented to colleges. For students applying early, GPAs are based on grades 9th to 11th, as are activities, interests, and experiences. As a parent, if you had wanted to better guide your child, you should know more about college admissions starting in 8th grade. This is not to make you (or your child) crazy, but more to make you an informed consumer.
2) Be a guide in the process, not a dictator.
As my daughter and I got more entrenched in the process, I realized this was a perfect opportunity to teach her how to handle major decisions and life events. I wanted to show her how to “approach” the admissions process in a way that she could learn to approach other important processes and decisions in her life.
I’ve always been a “researcher” and feel most comfortable with having as much information as possible. We discussed what types of information she should research to decide if a school should be included on her list and what resources to consult.
We created a master schedule and worked backwards from admissions deadlines to set dates for starting essays, having drafts, filling out the common app, etc. She added dates for registering for tests, requesting transcripts, sending scores, and asking for recommendations. We established a shared Dropbox folder to make it easier to share files on anything she wanted my husband and me to review.
After creating the framework together for handling the process, I moved to the sidelines and let her take responsibility and control for getting things done. She procrastinated and sometimes waited until the last minute, but at least she had an idea of the bigger picture for how to handle a complex process.
3) Make sure you have your own support group.
Get perspectives from friends who have already gone through the process. As a parent, you need a source to vent to, especially to someone who can really sympathize with what you’re dealing with. My best pieces of advice came from parents who were veterans of college planning. One friend said, “Don’t nag, just offer your support and when she needs it she’ll ask for it.” Another said, “Make sure you talk about other topics not related to testing, applications, college visits, essays and what all her friends are doing for college.” The advice was easier said than done, but my friends and sisters helped keep me sane when I thought I might explode with frustration from my daughter’s lack of progress.
4) Be open about finances.
This is the first MAJOR financial decision your child will be involved with and one that can have lasting implications on their future. Don’t skip this topic because you don’t want to worry them or you’ll do whatever you need to (like take out loans) to cover the costs. And don’t wait till junior or senior year to start looking at college costs. College Abacus is a great source for comparing projected financial aid packages based on your personal information, without visiting each college’s net price calculator on individual sites.
Here’s the “start early” comment again – but it really matters. FAFSA forms are based on tax information from January of your child’s junior year to December of their senior year. My child’s school held a financial aid night in January of her senior year – which was too late for anyone to do anything other than fill out the forms and pray. To be a financially responsible parent, I should have started understanding the financial aid process while my daughter was in middle school when I had more time on my side.
5) It’s a random process and you can’t explain the outcomes.
Up until this point in my daughter’s life, she could see the relationship between hard work and getting what she wanted. She’d always been self-motivated and when she spent time studying, she got good grades. When she joined and participated in organizations, she was rewarded with leadership positions. But what we learned in the college process was that having all the “right” stuff did not equate to getting what she wanted.
6) College planning is a family affair, not something a teen/young adult should do alone.
I think anyone who tells you that your child is old enough to handle this process on his/her own is crazy! Sometimes parents can’t handle it themselves on their own. Educate yourself and your child about the process, embrace the time together, know it’s a roller coaster, expect conflicts, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
The next time I go through this process I may be a little wiser, but because the process is always changing and each child is unique, it doesn’t mean the path will be easier. Having just finished with one child, I need a break, but I look forward to the next!
Debbie Schwartz, a former financial services executive and mother of a tween, teen, and young adult. She’s the founder of Road2College, a newsletter and website focused on educating families about college life, admissions, and financing. When parents and students become informed consumers of higher education, the road to college doesn’t have to be lined with debt.
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