It’s only natural for parents to be part of their child’s college selection and application process: You’re paying for it, after all, and this is a climactic moment in your offspring’s life. It’s also one of the visible results of primary and secondary education. With few rituals left to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood, the process enables your child to relish this significant moment in the safety of home and school, with guidance from you, teachers, and counselors. In important ways, it’s also a test run for college and life itself.
But this American walkabout often suffers from too much parental involvement. At a time when a child should be taking the reins and learning to direct his or her own life, parents can unwittingly short circuit the process. They see this moment as theirs instead of their children’s, or in the name of “helping” or “preventing mistakes” they take over, situations that can cause a great deal of conflict and ill will as a child heads into the future. Anyone who has been through it knows the signs: increased mumbling and eye rolling, dark looks, eruptions at the dinner table, and a refusal even to say the word “college” or fill out applications.
But there are ways to tell if you’re doing too much and need to back off. Below is a short quiz to see if you’re letting go or holding on.
1. Do you say, “We’re applying to college” instead of “Johnny’s applying to college”?
2. Do you insist that your child apply to your alma mater or other college of your choice regardless of his/her interest in it?
3. Do you look forward to telling friends at cocktail parties where your child is applying?
4. Do you let people know your child’s GPA, standardized test scores, and other personal information?
5. Are you planning college visits with little or no input from your child?
6. Do you ridicule your child’s college choices because he/she clearly doesn’t know what’s good for him/her?
7. Do you know more than your child’s college counselor does, even if you haven’t applied or been to a college in 20 years?
8. When you have college conversations with your child do you talk more than listen?
9. Do you insist on scouring rankings lists for “best” colleges rather than listening to what your child wants?
10. Do you lose sleep worrying that your child will go to a “no name” college?
11. Do you talk about your child’s talents/gifts/abilities or lack thereof to others with him or her present?
12. Do you (or a surrogate) do all the college research, all the calling, and all the typing of request letters and applications?
13. Do you make admission interview appointments for your child?
14. During college visits, do you ask questions for your child or otherwise take center stage?
15. Do you worry that you haven’t done enough as a parent to ensure that your child gets into a “good” college?
16. Do you prod your child, even as application deadlines approach, to join more clubs or take up exotic activities like bungee jumping or spelunking?
17. Do you insist that your child begin taking honors or AP courses even if he or she has never taken them in the past, and do you berate school officials if they think that’s not a good idea?
18. Do you see college as a reward for your efforts at raising a child?
19. Do you see college as a judgment of those efforts?
20. Do you interpret your child’s college choices as a comment on you as a parent?
21. Have you read all the college guides, getting-into-college guides, secrets-of-getting-into -college guides, and "how to" books about essays, tests, and everything else?
If you've answered "Yes" to any of these questions, it's time to pull back and take stock because you're taking control of something that should belong to your child. Allowing him or her to take the driver's seat in the college process is like, well, letting him or her take the driver's seat. You can't do it for your child; at some point your offspring has to drive alone. You may panic that he's not taking that corner properly or she's changing lanes too quickly, but true knowledge and independence, not to mention maturity, only come with experience. If your child is resisting college planning, perhaps you're pushing too much' he may want to take his own time and make his own plans.
Naturally, you need to keep an eye on things, but stay in the passenger's seat; don't try to grab the wheel. Make suggestions, keep the nagging to once or twice a week, and remember that, overall, the college process is actually a lot more forgiving than driver's ed: despite the panic over early admission and "regular" deadlines in November and December, many colleges have deadlines that run into February and even March. Now, it may be difficult, but you may want to acquaint your child with the idea of being responsible for her/his actions, if you haven't already done so: Late applications can mean being shut out of a college or being last to be considered for financial aid. But put the responsibility on your child, don't do applications for him or fill out forms for her. Be resolute and insist that your child do the work. In the long run, this will be much better for your child's development and your long-term relationship.
Remember, it’s your child’s future at stake here, not yours. Give him or her the power to make decisions, even to make mistakes, with your support and guidance, not your direction or judgment. Take a virtual vacation and “return” only when an application check needs to be signed or you’re asked for advice. Let your child feel the thrill of controlling his or her own destiny. Above all, parents, enjoy this moment of watching your child begin the process of becoming an independent, well-adjusted adult. You’ll be glad you did.