Episode 141: The Role of Parents in College Applications

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We are in the last days of October, and Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are just a handful of days or a couple of weeks away. There is still time, but not much for those of you interested in early applications (and we think that should be almost all of you, for Early Action at least). So, what is the role of parents at this critical time? Today’s episode is short and sweet, and it will hopefully affirm what you are already doing, parents, if you have been listening to USACollegeChat.

1. A New Survey

In this episode, we want to talk about a new survey by Kaplan Test Prep. According to its LinkedIn profile, “Kaplan Test Prep (www.kaptest.com) is a premier provider of educational and career services for individuals, schools and businesses. Our job is not just teaching test material, but also giving students confidence in themselves. Established in 1938, Kaplan is the world leader in the test prep industry, offering preparation for more than 100 standardized tests. . .” (quoted from LinkedIn). By the way, this episode is not an endorsement of Kaplan Test Prep, or any other test prep company, because we have not done a careful study of their services or products and their results.

Anyway, earlier this year, Kaplan Test Prep conducted a telephone survey of 354 admissions officers in high-ranked colleges. It seems to have focused on the admissions officers’ answer to a question something like this (I have not seen the actual survey questions, just the answers): “How involved should parents be in the college applications process?” These were the answers of the college admissions officers:

  • Not involved at all–less than 1 percent of college admissions officers
  • Not very involved–6 percent of college admissions officers
  • Somewhat involved–75 percent of college admissions officers
  • Very involved–18 percent of college admissions officers
  • Extremely involved–1 percent of college admissions officers

My personal view here is that parents need to be more than “somewhat involved”–the overwhelmingly favorite answer of those surveyed. Now, it is probably true that there were not definitions of these terms in the survey (at least, they weren’t reported if there were). So, perhaps my understanding of “somewhat involved” is not the same as the understanding of college admissions officers about that same term. Nonetheless, I would say that being in the middle point of any scale on how involved you should be about anything related to the next two or four or six years of your child’s life–and of something that could, in fact, affect your child’s entire future–is not my view. I get it: My view is quite different from the opinions of about 80 percent of college admissions officers, and I am not apologizing for it. It’s probably why we started USACollegeChat to begin with?that is, to help parents know what they need to know to be involved appropriately and effectively and to encourage parents to get involved in this life-changing decision for their kids.

To be fair, the Kaplan Test Prep website quotes some crazy things that college admissions officers say that parents have done–perhaps, what a few of the “extremely involved” parents have done. All of these things are obviously terrible, and I want to make sure that you never do them, USACollegeChat listeners. So, here they are quoted, from the Kaplan Test Prep website:

  • “I once had a parent call pretending to be the student, but I had met the student before so I knew how [her] voice sounds. I called the student’s cell phone after to suggest that her mom not pretend to be her and call other schools, because that’s fraud.”

  • “We have plenty of ‘helicopter parents’ who are overly involved. We’ve had parents who wouldn’t let the student speak in meetings even when we tried to engage the student specifically.”

  • “There have been parents who’ve called requesting to change their child’s major because they don’t want their child in that major.”

  • “In some cases we’d get duplicate records due to parents and students both trying to complete parts of the application without talking to each other.” (quoted from the website)

Clearly, I am not defending any of those parents or those actions. But I do believe that those parents are a long way from what reasonable and effective–but more than “somewhat”–involvement looks like.

To be fair, again, the Kaplan Test Prep website also listed some things that college admissions officers believe parents should do during the college admissions process. Here they are:

  • “Parents should be very involved in coaching and advising in the actual decision-making, but it’s also important for students to be the ones most engaged in the process and in contact with the admissions officers.”

  • “Parents should be there for support, but the child should be driving. Like learning to drive, you can be a back seat driver, but let kids steer.”

  • “Parents should guide the student in thinking about certain aspects of the application and provide a sounding board for the students as they are considering their choices.” (quoted from the website)

  • “Parents need to be most involved . . . when it comes to the financial aid process. Students are not knowledgeable in this area and need the most guidance with this.”

Of course, I am good with all of those. But they are a bit vague, except for the absolutely necessary advice that kids cannot navigate financial aid by themselves. Parents can barely navigate financial aid, I believe. So, parents, don’t be afraid to get outside help, if at all possible.

According to the website, Kaplan Test Prep believes that parents could reasonably be “accompanying [their children] on campus visits, making sure they meet application deadlines, or helping them fill out financial aid paperwork” (quoted from the website). I think we all would agree with that. But what else?

Let’s talk about deciding where to apply. While Kaplan Test Prep would like kids to take the lead on that, we want to make sure that you do your part, parents. We would like kids to do the all-important research on the colleges on their LLCO (long list of college options) before narrowing that list down to their final “short list” of colleges. We talked about that a couple of weeks ago in Episode 139.

And, of course, we hope that they will use our new workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students to do that. But–however they do it–parents have to make sure that kids get the answers to lots of crucial questions about the colleges they are considering. It’s a lot of work to find out what you need to know about a college before deciding whether to apply. We can’t stress this enough. In fact, as we have said many times, lots of kids and parents don’t know nearly enough when those application decisions are being made. My guess is that kids will need some strong encouragement from parents in order to do the work required to get all of the information you both are going to need. Remember, we believe that you are going to need answers to 52 questions covering these important aspects of a college (see the questionnaire in our new workbook for details):

  • History and Mission
  • Location
  • Enrollment
  • Class Size
  • Academics
  • Schedule
  • Housing
  • Security Measures
  • Activities and Sports
  • Admission Practices
  • Cost

Talking through the answers to questions on all of these topics and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of as many as 15 or so colleges on your list is something that your kid is going to need your help with. Teachers and counselors at school just do not have the time it takes to do that for every student, for obvious reasons. Even if they did, this is your own kid we are talking about, and you both need to be happy with the decision about where to apply and, eventually, about where to enroll. That is going to take more than being “somewhat” involved.

And let’s talk about college application essays. We have talked so often about these in past episodes (Episode 98, Episode 99, Episode 106, and Episode 110) that I hate to do it again (though I probably will before the season is over). But I will say this now: You must read your kid’s college essays–all of them. Not just the main Common Application essay, but also all the supplemental ones. If you don’t feel confident in your own ability to read and suggest and edit and advise, then find an adult who can. Again, teachers and counselors at school just do not have the time it takes to do that for every student. Period. So, maybe it’s an older sibling or another relative or an internship mentor or someone at your house of worship or someone in a community program. But, whoever it is, kids need an adult to help with these essays. They just do. I am going to vote for “extremely” involved on this one.

I guess I could go on, but I hope that I have made my point. Those of you who know me know that I am speaking as a parent who has sent three kids to college (first as undergraduates and then as graduate students). But I am also speaking as someone who believes that parents want the best for each and every one of their kids and that they want to do their best to help see that their kids get it. So, don’t be afraid to be more than “somewhat” involved, whatever college admissions officers think.

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