Advice for Parents of High School Seniors: 5 Ways You Can Help With College Applications

Advice for Parents of High School Seniors: 5 Ways You Can Help With College Applications

Parents play an invaluable role in their kids’ applications. Every parent has a different style when it comes to applications – running the gamut from “hands off” to “Black Hawk helicopter” parenting. It’s easy to want to control everything from signing your student up for the best extracurricular activities for college to editing the essays they write. But finding a balance between being hands-on without being overbearing is key during the admissions process.

Regardless of your style, here is some advice for parents of high school seniors that will be extremely helpful for just about any student applying to college:

1. Make a schedule

Perhaps the hardest part of college applications is starting early, working diligently, and keeping yourself on track. It’s not that most 17-year-olds don’t understand how important applications are – they do. It’s that most high school students have never had to spend 3-4 months working every day on a single project. That sort of advanced planning and discipline is uncommon among teenagers.

Thus, perhaps the first piece of advice for parents of high school seniors is to help students make a schedule. You should make sure to include all the elements of the application, as well as concrete due dates. Simply telling your son or daughter that they need to have the application complete by X date will ensure that they miss their deadline. Here are some examples of scheduling major college admissions milestones ahead of time:

  • Finish filling out personal data in the Common App by September 1st.
  • Ask for Letters of Recommendation by September 15th.  
  • Complete Early Decision supplemental essays by the first week of October.  

2. Keep to it

Your student should be working on his or her applications almost every day. Make sure that each day, 30 minutes to 1 hour are set aside for your son or daughter to work on their applications. Writing a great application is not just about how many hours are spent on it. Starting early, and working in small increments ensures that your student has ample time to reflect on what they’ve written. Some of the best advice for parents of high school seniors are these time management tips:

  • Block out the same 30-45 minutes each day to work.
  • Work in the same place – the kitchen, the living room, the back porch – every day.
  • Put the phone away for total focus.
  • Keep the focus on one aspect of the application per day. 

3. Never write their applications

Some parents, when facing stiff resistance from their high schooler, opt to simply write portions of their students’ applications. This is a terrible advice for parents of high school seniors.

Not only will your son or daughter not learn the value of perfecting their own applications (something that every successful individual knows) – they will probably also suffer in the admissions process itself.

Most admissions officers are experienced enough to spot essays that aren’t written by high school students. Parents simply cannot replicate the perspective, tone, and voice of their adolescent applicants. Essays, no matter how long or short, must be written by the student. Edit it all you want, but if you write their essays, you won’t be fooling anyone.

4. Your student’s opinions matter – listen to them

The biggest mistake parents can make is adopting an “I-always-know-what’s-best” attitude. Most of the time, you may be right. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider your son or daughter’s opinion.

When I was applying to schools, I wrote the first draft of my personal statement for college about something I loved – debate. I wrote a hodge-podge essay littered with structural, spelling, and grammatical errors, but it showed my passion. The biggest mistake my parents made when reviewing my “masterpiece” was assuming that their superior writing talents made them better-equipped to select my topic.

After a brief argument, I was sent back to the drawing board with instructions for a new paper topic. Honestly, I have no idea what I wrote about. I remember my first draft, but I have no clue what came after it. I know that it was so sterile and boring that, by the end, I felt nauseated just reading it.

My final product was a true testament to the stubbornness of teenagers. My new personal statement meant nothing to me, and so I spent several weeks working as little as possible – and caring even less about it. Had they taken this advice for parents of high school seniors, my parents would have listened, and my personal statement would have reflected all of the passion and personality that admissions offices look for in an applicant. 

The takeaway is simple: force your teenager to do something, and they might do it. Force your teenager to do something your way, and they will fight you at every turn. As I’m getting older, I’d say this tip isn’t just advice for parents of high school seniors

5. You are teaching your student a critical life lesson, and you should treat it accordingly

Applications are not a “one-off” phenomenon. Your end-goal needs to be more than getting your son or daughter into a great college. Of course, that is incredibly important. However, just as important is that your teenager actually learn from this experience.

Parents who strip their sons or daughters of any agency in the application process do them a tremendous disservice. Applications will be a critical component of their entire collegiate and professional lives. College applications are the best – and possibly last – opportunity you have to show your teenagers what it takes to write a stellar application.

It is a tool they can use in the future when applying to summer internships, graduate programs, or jobs. Biggest piece of advice for parents of high school seniors: you need to give them space to figure things out for themselves. If you micromanage every task, they will never learn for themselves – even if their final product is perfect.

About the Author


Joel Butterly, Co-founder and CEO of InGenius Prep, is an experienced admissions counselor and entrepreneur. Joel comes from a rich educational background—his immediate family alone has 14 Ivy League Degrees—from Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Dartmouth.

Joel attended Dartmouth College, where he studied Government, Geography, and the Philosophy of Ethics. He was inducted early into Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated Summa Cum Laude. He graduated with a double major in Government and International Studies, and a minor in Ethical Philosophy.

After Dartmouth, Joel attended Yale Law School, where he served on the executive board of the Journal on Regulation, as well as the Law School’s entrepreneurship society.

Joel currently resides at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. He lives with his fiance – Emily – who teaches and is receiving her PhD in Medieval History from Yale.