College Prep: The Parent’s Role in the College Admission Process

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Marilyn Morrison90BY MARILYN C. MORRISON

After years of volunteering in the classroom, cheering from the sidelines at the soccer field, and ferrying kids from music lessons to the orthodontist’s office, parents often find it difficult to know where to draw the line in their involvement in the college admission process once their children are in high school.

 Overzealous moms and dads who ask too many questions on college tours, write their child’s essays for them, and refer to their child’s application as “ours” can actually hinder a student’s college admission chances.  Some college admission officers have begun complaining that parents are too involved in the process.  They theorize that the problem stems from today’s parents living vicariously through their children, or worrying about being “out-parented” by more aggressive parents.  For many families, college is the first time that a child has faced rejection, and parents sometimes fall victim to the mistaken belief that the name of the college their child ultimately attends has a direct correlation with the quality of their parenting skills.

 An article published in the “College Times” magazine by the College Board in 2001 suggested three appropriate roles for parents to adopt in the college application process:

  • Coach – in sports, a coach offers encouragement and expresses belief in the child, but never plays the game for the child, no matter how much he or she is struggling
  • Consultant – in business, law, or medicine, a consultant poses analytical questions and offers an opinion based on experience and training, but the client can choose whether or not to take the advice
  • Executive Secretary – in an office, an executive secretary gathers the material necessary for his or her boss to do the job; does some of the legwork and handles the logistics of a project; watches for errors and makes suggestions; and keeps a close eye on calendars, schedules, and deadlines

 The key is remembering that college is your child’s project and decision.  The choices can—and should—be made with your guidance, input, and support, but this is the first real adult decision your child will make.  Your child is the one going to college now, not you, and it’s important that you try not to take over the process.

 Here are some of the things you can do to help without overstepping your bounds:


  • Offer support and encouragement.  Establish the expectation of college, as early as elementary school.  Expose children to stimulating experiences, but don’t push them to do things they hate, or to choose to do something just to “look good” on a college application.  Help your high school juniors and seniors with interview skills, or arrange for another adult to do mock interviews.  Be a good “coach” and let your kids know that you believe in their potential.  Keep an open mind, and encourage your child to do the same.
  • Educate yourself about colleges.  Attend all college-related parent meetings at your child’s school.  Make sure that your child is meeting the course requirements for graduation, as well as the college entrance requirements for public and private universities (a good example of the “consultant” role).  Show interest in and awareness of many colleges (not just famous ones or your own alma mater). 
  • Assist with logistics and organization.  Maintain a file of certificates and awards your child receives throughout high school.  Provide a dedicated space in your home for college materials, along with files, notebooks, baskets or shelves to organize it all.  Help students arrange college visits, but don’t plan trips without their input and buy-in (remember the “executive secretary” role?).  Make sure to save copies of all materials that have been are submitted, whether on paper or electronically. 


By limiting your participation to the roles of Coach, Consultant, and Executive Secretary, you’ll allow students to maintain control of their own college search and applications.  Respect their wishes and feelings, and with any luck they’ll give some consideration to yours!  Your guidance, support, and love—plus a lot of cheerleading—will certainly make your child’s path to college easier.  As a Kaplan, Inc.’s guide for parents wisely reminds us, “Your job is to dry the tears, not cause them.”

Marilyn C. Morrison is an independent college consultant who guides students and families through the college planning and application process.  Visit Morrison Educational Consulting’s website at, or contact Marilyn at (818) 781-3476 or

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.