Helping your child apply for colleges in the United States can be an overwhelming process, especially if you’ve never done it yourself. Schools aren’t always particularly forthcoming about everything they expect from prospective students. The system isn’t designed for newcomers to easily make sense of its many rules, deadlines, and unspoken expectations.
From finding the right school for your child to making sure your family can afford it, there’s so much to consider. It can take a textbook’s worth of reading to research appropriate schools or understand financial aid. If you’re feeling a little lost about how to assist your child, that’s understandable. Here are some things you can do to empower your student throughout the process, even if you’re not a college grad yourself.
1. Help Them Ace the Application
The U.S. college admissions process is an intricate web of different components, from test scores to extracurriculars to personal statements. Miss or flub a key component, and even with perfect grades, your child could easily miss out on a great school. As their parent, you can play a key role in making sure all their application elements are in order.
One way you can give them a boost is to invest in test prep courses. Another is encouraging them to develop a well-rounded portfolio of extracurricular activities early on. Reading their admissions essay and offering feedback can be a major source or moral support. Even if you don’t have a perfect grasp of English composition, your opinions and ideas can still mean the world to your child.
Given how complex the process can be, some parents choose to hire a college admissions consultant. These professionals can relieve busy parents of a lot of the work — and anxiety. They can guide you and your child through everything from finding best-fit schools to submitting a perfectly polished essay.
2. Keep Track of the Calendar
If you work with a consultant, they will make sure your child completes all the necessary steps on schedule. If you don’t, one of the most important things you can do is keep tabs on all the admissions time frames and deadlines. Even without college experience, your grasp of the importance of due dates will be a massive asset to your child. This is especially true if they haven’t had the experience of planning and executing a large, complex project before.
The first thing you can do is put all the important admissions dates on your own calendar. This requires identifying all the components of the application and knowing when each one needs to be handled. Individual aspects will vary, but they can include registering for standardized tests, completing the Common App, submitting essays, and scheduling interviews.
Make sure you understand just how soon the college application process starts. For some schools or students, that might be as early as sophomore year. It’s even longer if you consider participating in extracurriculars and maintaining a good GPA part of the admissions process — which you should. Researching the right schools can also take a long time if you or your child aren’t familiar with the options.
3. Take Your Student to Visit Schools
If at all possible, plan scouting trips to candidate schools and accompany your student to campus. These visits can give both you and your child peace of mind and help you determine whether a given school is a good match. Some families wait to visit their chosen schools until it’s time to make a final decision. But doing so as early as junior year can offer more clarity about next steps.
When you visit one school, consider other possibilities nearby to save time and money. Make a point of speaking with regular students, not just tour guides and admissions officials. Check out dorms (if allowed), cafeterias, and social areas, not just classrooms and performance spaces. If you have time, investigate the surrounding town, city, or neighborhood, too.
If you can’t afford to travel to all your child’s top choices in person, look into setting up virtual visits. You can learn a lot about a school from how it’s portrayed in the media or talked about online. Your child can read through discussions on Reddit and in college-oriented forums. Or you could see whether you can set up a Zoom call with a current student or recent grad. When your student has these online interactions, don’t hover: Give them space and privacy to ask more personal questions.
4. Figure Out the Finances
Early on, decide how much your family is willing and able to contribute to your child’s education — even if it’s zero. Be transparent with your child about your financial situation and what they or you will need to do to make it work. The worst thing you can do is get your child into a great school without a plan for financing their studies.
Students who are U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens with financial need should fill out the FAFSA to check their eligibility for federal aid. The FAFSA asks for information from your tax returns, so you’ll need to get your documents in order. Filling out the FAFSA is vital, as some colleges, states, and private funding sources also use it to make aid decisions.
You can further help your child by looking into state and private grants and scholarships and other ways to finance college. Many colleges offer merit-based scholarships and work-study programs you can learn about through their financial aid offices. You could assist your child in applying for federal or private student loans. And you should definitely check to see whether your employer offers any scholarships or tuition assistance for employees’ dependents.
Teaching Them to Take Charge
As a parent, there are so many things you can do to support your child through the college admissions process. At the same time, the most important thing you can do is learn how to step back a little. You can and should do everything in your power to give your child the tools they need to succeed. But don’t forget to teach them independence, too, letting them take some real responsibility for the process.