Parents: How to best help your teen navigate the college application process

Educational psychologist Jane McClure joins us this month to discuss how parents can help college-bound teens through the application process. Read on to find out how to become an advisor and advocate for your son or daughter, and avoid becoming a "nagging taskmaster."


Parents often ask me how they can help their son or daughter during the application process.  I am pleased to get this question because it indicates parents recognize there are some methods that are appropriate and helpful and others are not.  While each student is unique, here are some typical issues that parents should consider as they attempt to provide assistance.


  1.  It is important that students see their parents as advocates rather than as nagging task masters.  After all, this may be the last time that students live full-time at home, and you don’t want it to be fraught with fighting, nagging, slamming doors, ……well, you get the picture. 


  1. As a parent, rather than TELLING your son or daughter what you are going to do to “help” them, start out by ASKING them what would be helpful.  They may be so shocked by the question that they can’t think of anything.  If so, tell them you will check back with them in a day or so, giving them time to think about it.  Then listen to their ideas and discuss how you can support them in ways that make them feel comfortable.  If they still can’t think of anything, ASK them if you could help by setting up an organization system for them.  Most teens are not very good at organizing projects – and the college application process is one big project!  You can set up a filing system, or a virtual filing system on the computer.  You can create a calendar and work with them to establish dates by which they will have applications or essays completed.  You can create, with input from your teen, an evaluation sheet that will make it easier for them to compare colleges during and after a college visit trip. 


  1. It is essential for parents to resist the temptation to take over the process, thereby creating the potential for self-defeating passive aggressive behavior.  The worst possible scenario leads students to refuse to complete applications because they no longer feel engaged in the process.  They don’t want to participate in what now seems to be their “parents’ application process.”


  1. A common complaint I hear from students is that they hate having dinner with their parents because all parents want to talk about is college.  A good strategy for this situation is to have a meeting and work out the logistics of a compromise.  Students agree to meet with parents once a week – establish a definite 1 to 2 hour time block on a specific day– to show parents what they have accomplished over the past week.  Teens should understand that parents need to have this reassurance in order to keep their sanity!  In return, parents agree not to initiate conversation about college outside of this designated time slot.  If students bring up the topic, that’s fine; parents, however, must stick to their pledge to avoid it.

With such approaches, parental help will most likely be both welcome and appreciated.


Jane McClure is a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP 1605) and educational consultant whose work has focused on college counseling and psychoeducational evaluations.  McClure was a partner at San Francisco’s McClure, Mallory, Baron & Ross for more than 20 years. Previously named Educational Psychologist of the Year by the California Association of Licensed Educational Psychologists, McClure recently received the WACAC Service Award from the Western Association of College Admission Counseling. For the College Board, she has presented workshops for guidance counselors related to counseling college-bound students who have learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and worked as a consultant on issues related to services for students with disabilities.

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