Applying to college can be an extremely stressful occasion for both parents and their kids. Countless essays are written, tests taken, options considered, and it all culminates when a life-changing decision is made affecting everyone involved. There is a careful balance that needs to be maintained throughout this period as a small question from a parent can easily send an overwhelmed teen into panic mode.

I applied to fifteen schools, toured twenty, and wrote over thirty supplemental essays. During this period I was filled not only with excitement but also with dread at the prospect of not knowing where I was going to be in a year’s time. Now that I am a second year at Northeastern University, I feel that I can reflect on the process and maybe provide useful advice for parents looking to help their child during this chaotic occasion.

Spreadsheets are Your Best Friend

When asking my friends what the most valuable thing their parents did when applying to college, an overwhelming majority respond “make spreadsheets”. Constructing a list of the most basic, yet vital, information about a school can save your child a lot of time and energy. It not only allows them to get a sense of what they are looking for but also helps when it becomes time to make a decision.

Before I started this journey my parents and I sat down and discussed what I was looking for in a school. We brainstormed for hours and came up with a long list of factors that ranged from cost to availability of public transportation. Crafting this criteria before starting the search turned out to be fundamental as it allowed for all of the schools I considered to be evaluated using that same scale. After every tour, I would turn to my parents, go through the list, and write down my impressions on how the university fared in each category.

Here are some of the questions/components I considered…

–        Cost

–        Size

–        Length of Program

–        Possibility of Graduate School

–        Weather

–        Accessibility to Public Transport

–        Diversity

–        Meal Plan

–        What are the dorms like?

–        How much does it cost to get from the university to home?

–        Can I change my major?

–        Is study abroad an option?

–        Did I feel good walking around the campus?

–        What do I dislike about the school?

–        Does the university provide access to physical and mental healthcare?

–        Were there any classes I may be interested in taking?

–        Were there any clubs I may want to join?

If you feel that you and your child don’t have a long list of criteria and that spreadsheets are too complicated a simple pros and cons list never hurts. 

Keeping Options Open

I had been excited about attending university since I was in elementary school, waiting for the day that I would get to not only choose where I would go but also what I would get to do with my life. This is not the case for everyone though. Deciding whether to go to college is a choice that every graduating high schooler has to make and having a conversation with your child about all of the options they have will be essential.

Quinn, a second year at the University of Puget Sound, said the best advice she could offer parents is to make sure your child knows taking a gap year is an option. It is important to recognize that your kid has just finished a thirteen-year-long trek through schooling and taking a short break may be the most beneficial choice for them.

Taking a gap year doesn’t mean twelve months of sitting at home; it could mean going abroad, starting a major project, or getting a job that will allow for the development of lifelong skills. While you may envision them going to university right away, it is crucial that you take the time to find out what your child wants because making them go to school when they don’t want to will not be a fun experience for anyone involved.

Touring as a Tool

When talking to my parents about what they thought the best thing during this process was, they both responded going on tours. Going on a tour of a university not only will help your child decide if going to school is what they want but even one visit can help both you and your kid better understand what they are looking for in a college.

I visited twenty schools in around a year and while at one point each institution’s pitches started to blend together, there was nothing more valuable than going in person to see every school I was seriously considering. As soon as my parents and I would get back to the car after an exciting day of seeing the campus, we would talk about the things I liked and the things I didn’t.

Seeing so many places allowed me to develop my own set of standards for what I was looking for in a university. I also think that the only way someone can truly recognize if they would fit in with a school is by going for a visit. Sometimes you need to be there to determine if the vibe is right.

Offer Help with Essays

When almost every school requires multiple supplemental essays to be considered and you’re applying to five or more colleges the work builds up quickly. One of the best ways to help your child is to offer your feedback on these supplements.

If your kid is having a difficult time coming up with ideas, suggest a brainstorming session. They may say no and that’s okay and if they do say yes make sure you ask what kind of advice they need. Sometimes I wanted help with grammar while with others I wanted help with content and although I knew my parents were trying to be supportive, unwanted feedback only stressed me out more.

Communication is Key

While the advice above is useful to some, not every child is going to want to tour a school or make a spreadsheet but something that is absolutely crucial in this process is keeping the line of communication open. While trying to start a conversation about college every few minutes may be annoying to your kid keeping tabs on what they are thinking and how they are doing is so necessary.

Piper, a first year at the University of San Francisco, told me that even asking if your child needs a glass of water when researching schools or writing an essay can make a huge difference. I know I was a handful when applying to college, one second I would be excited to talk about all of the places I could go, and the next I was yelling at my mom to stop asking me if I had sent in my applications.

Being patient but also making sure you are checking in with your kid requires a difficult balance to be maintained and is hard to master even for those who are going through this process with their second or third child.

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About Grace O’Mara

Grace O’Mara is an English major currently attending university in Boston, MA. As well as studying literature, she is working towards earning a minor in writing and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. She grew up in Shanghai, China and Prague, Czech Republic and loves to travel. When she isn’t doing school work she spends all of her time reading, watching movies, buying vinyl, and thrifting.

View all posts by Grace O’Mara