How involved should I be in teens college application? This much…

Going to college is a huge deal. Picking the correct college is even more important. This is probably the first major decision your child has encountered. So should they be doing it alone? You should be involved, but how much?

Your teen’s college application is a life decision. They need guidance and direction. This is where you as a parent come in. Let me guide you through the process.

  1. First things first, where is their dream college?
  2. Do they have what it takes?
  3. Getting organized, but not you!
  4. Get them the help they need
  5. Finances and what is affordable

If your child has decided they want to go to college, that is fantastic. College is at the end of the day about their future. Their motivation is to have a good financial future and career. Here’s how we navigated through the application process.

First things first, where is their dream college?

Deciding on where to go to college is a big decision. There are so many colleges available but not all will be suitable. There are a few things that need to be considered when making the choice.

Are they going to attend a school in or out of state?
Are they going to choose a Community College, Public University or Ivy?

My post, differences between community college vs University/ Ivy League goes into this in more detail.

These are decisions that initially your child should be making but you have to have some input at this stage. Upping and going to college on the other side of the country has impacts on a family, not least of all a monetary one. Going to college out of state is more expensive: tuition fees are more expensive, but room and board also have to be factored in, as also travel costs, if they are going to come home during the break.

It shouldn’t take away from a college being included on an application but it has to be a consideration.

If your child has their heart set on a particular college there are lots of ways to make that a reality. Visiting as many campuses as possible is the best way for your son/daughter to get a feel for a college. They can imagine themselves there as a student. Placing yourself physically in a setting is then easier to remember how you felt about a place.

It should be up to your child, whether or not they want you to visit different colleges with them. My husband and I took turns visiting a couple of campuses with our daughter but then for her dream college we both went.

But our daughter wanted us to be there. It was of course very exciting. Both my husband and I wished it was us returning to college. But it was, to be honest quite difficult for me. I knew that this was the beginning. That soon she would be leaving home and any moments we could share were special.

It was difficult on the college open days, not to take the lead. This was her time and of course her choice.

I’m a bit of a control freak. I like to be organized and to have everything boxed away in a timely fashion. And my daughter is also pretty similar.

But it was important for me to remember that this was her thing, and I was just there as an onlooker. I didn’t want her to choose her first choice of school because it was where me or her father wished we had gone. I wanted her to be able to see herself as a student there, being part of campus life. This was going to be her home for four years and I didn’t want my opinion to cloud that.

In saying that, we do need to give some guidance. If your kid is aceing school or has a 4+ GPA then putting an Ivy in the mix is an option. But we have to be honest with both ourselves and our kids. We need to be guiding them in the right direction. Our daughter at one stage had an inkling to be a Paramedic. But she can’t bear needles.

Wherever they choose or what course they choose needs to be something that they can see through to the end. About 70% of High School graduates go on to college but only 70% of them actually graduate.

I always think, ‘I’ll just do that chore real quick’ or ‘I’ll just fill in that form online’. But I’m not doing my kids any favors by taking over. They need to know how much work and effort is needed to get them to college and then they will appreciate it more.

Do they have what it takes?

So if only 70% of students finish college, do you think your kid has what it takes? This is, I think, where most parents slip up in the application process. We all think that we have genius children. We compare them to cousins and friends’ children. How did they do in a test compared to our own.

We all, of course, want our kids to be scientists, engineers, or doctors, but have they got what it takes, not only to get there but to stick it out until graduation? It is important that the bar is set high, but that bar needs to be set early in high school. Grades need to be consistent.

The US GPA is 3, so if your child is thinking of medicine or engineering they need a high GPA, at the upper end of 3.5+ or above. And if they are thinking of an Ivy it needs to be even higher.

What is a good GPA is another one of my posts that you may be interested in.

You above anyone else know your child and how they tick. How are their SATs going to go? Are they calm about taking exams?

Our daughter is and always has been a very high achiever. She has a great work ethic. It just gets done. She knows it has to be completed and submitted and that’s it, no questions asked.
But when it came to her final exams, it was a different story. She was so stressed and overwhelmed. Felt that she hadn’t done enough work. How would she get her place in college?
And I wondered had we pushed her too hard? Had expectations exceeded her ability to be calm and get through this?

So that’s what I mean when I say ‘Do they have what it takes?’
Not intellectually but emotionally. They need to be able to cope once they get to college. Chances are they will be living on campus and you won’t be there to manage their anxiety or even be aware if they are going to class. They need to want to do it themselves. To succeed for themselves, not for you.

Get organized! That means them not you.

I am an incredibly organized person. My husband laughs sometimes when he asks ‘Did we do that job? Did we send that email? We need to get on top of that issue…’
Then he realizes, oh Tara has already done that….
Of course, I have. Everything has to be just so, and I can’t rest until chores are finished. And I was the same when it came to our daughter’s college application. I was aware there is a timeline that has to be followed. Items need to be submitted. Forms to be filled, paperwork and documents to be sourced.

But I had to take a step back (in reality a good few steps!) and allow my daughter to take the lead on this. It was her college application and not mine. I had already had my spin at the wheel. I found this very difficult. I needed to know everything was running smoothly and we were ticking the boxes at the correct time. As I said the procedure follows a very particular timeline and because your child’s application is also reliant on others ie counselors, and teachers, it all needs to be done in a timely manner. All it takes is one glitch and you have missed a deadline.


So my best advice is to grab a wall planner and put it in an obvious place. Above their study desk. Get your child to go online and mark all the important dates. I know a spreadsheet would do the same thing but it is not as effective as a wall planner in their face. They need to be looking at those deadlines approaching and act on them. There’s no point in being really proactive, setting out a spreadsheet, closing the file, and forgetting about it.

There are certain files and documents that you will need to source for them for their FAFSA application. Again this may involve a third party, your employer, so don’t leave it until the last minute.

But everything else should be organized by your child. They need to take responsibility for their application. They need to want to do it. This is their future. Of course, if they come to you and ask for some help or advice, well then yes, we are going to help them. But we need to distinguish between help/advice and taking control. As I say, for me, this was very difficult.
I always think, ‘I’ll just do that chore real quick’ or ‘I’ll just fill in that form online’. But I’m not doing my kids any favors by taking over. They need to know how much work and effort is needed to get them to college and then they will appreciate it more.

Get them the help they need

There are of course lots of companies that will help with your child’s application but they are seriously expensive. They will do an amazing job and your child’s application will no doubt be successful in any number of schools but don’t feel that you can’t do this alone. There are other ways of going about it without spending over the odds. As I said, the timeline is the most important element of the application. Your child can have the most amazing essay or letters of recommendation but if you miss the deadline then they are worthless.

So going to college and your child’s application starts way back in junior year. The grades and GPA that your child is achieving are good indicators of how they are going to perform at the end of high school.

So what we did with our daughter is we looked at all of her grades and considered where she might need some extra help. She was doing well in her science subjects and this was no surprise as her hopes were set on BioScience/ Biology for college. But she was struggling somewhat with Math. She was going to need a high grade in this also to get her place in her course.

We made the decision to get extra tuition on a one-to-one basis and it made a fantastic difference. It was an extra cost for a whole school year. It was certainly worth it, as without the extra tuition she wouldn’t have got her place. 

But, but, but… she was pretty good at math already. She just needed the extra boost. You need to think hard about spending lots of money on extra tuition. Of course, we’ll do anything we can for our kids to get them through and over the line but they need to want it.

I spoke with a parent recently who regrets all the extra tuition they had organized for their son in his final year. He did amazing in his exams but then quit college after the first semester. He couldn’t handle the lack of one-to-one. He was totally at a loss. So, definitely get them some extra help if they need it. But make sure they don’t become reliant on the extra help.

Once they get to college there will be help available but they do need to be able to self-soothe and self-motivated.

Finances and what is available

We have decided that some involvement in your child’s application is appropriate but your child also needs to be aware of the finances.

Making an application costs money, which is ok, and expected, but if they get accepted to a certain college is there money there to fund their attendance? There are grants and loans available that can be applied for but up to 30% of students leave college mid-course because of financial strain. Sit down with your child and go through the schools that you can afford.
Most public universities run at the same kind of costs, the Ivies are more expensive but also have huge endowment funds behind them and so a lot of financial aid is available also at these schools.

College application so expensive, is another one of my posts that goes into the different costs associated with applying for college.

There is also the other side of finances where companies will offer huge amounts of help to get your child into their dream school. But this comes at a cost. They will handhold you and your child through the entire college application process. How to write amazing essays. The best letters of recommendation. Where would suit your child best? This is a fantastic resource to able to enhance your child’s application but is costly.

It wasn’t something that we went for with our daughter. We felt that she was competent enough on her own and had only one main college in mind. That’s not to say if your child has their heart set on an Ivy, for example, well then it may be worth having even the initial consultation with one of these companies.

Most offer tiered levels of plans, so if you are really struggling with an application or essay prompt and money is not an issue then I would definitely say the more advice and information you have the better.
On a final note about your involvement, before going guns blazing into other people helping out (especially when there is a cost involved) make sure it’s what your child wants.
This is after all their college application.

Tara Cunningham

Tara Cunningham is a Mum and Graphic Designer. My children's education has always been very important to me. I feel that if you are willing to put in the time they will appreciate the effort. I hope that you find our thoughts and ideas useful and interesting.

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