The 5 Worst Things You Could do as a Parent During College Applications

College Application Tips for Parents: The 5 Worst Things You Could Do as a Parent During College Applications

Being a parent is always challenging, but certain points in your children’s lives stand out. The college application process is definitely one of those points. When my kids were applying, it often felt as though I couldn’t do anything right!  

Going from reading applications at Dartmouth College to helping my own high schoolers with their college applications was difficult. If I asked them about their application progress, I was a nag. If I didn’t ask, I wasn’t supportive enough. If I was overheard answering direct questions about where they were applying to college, I was given the death glare. College application tips for parents are hard to outline because every student is different. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but here are 5 things that you definitely should not do:

1. Everything

Many parents get so caught up in the college application process that they forget whose process it is!

  • Do not write that Personal Statement for your child! No, not even “just the first draft,” as a friend described it to me!
  • Do not fill out the Common Application for them! No, not even “just the factual information”!
  • Do not rank your own list of potential colleges for your kid! My husband so enjoyed college visits with our daughter that he wrote an ordered list of school choices (based on his own preferences) without consulting her. Not only was her preference list quite different, but his over-zealousness for some schools dampened her enthusiasm for applying to them.

The process itself has value if students take ownership of it. It’s a good experience for them to reflect on their accomplishments, write their own resume, ask for recommendations, and keep track of their deadlines.

2. Generate anxiety

High school students are generally balls of anxiety by senior fall. You may not be able to make that better, but try not to make it worse – this is one of my biggest college application tips for parents.

Don’t say things like, “If you don’t get accepted Early Decision it will ruin Christmas.” Don’t say, “I’ve dreamed of you going to my alma mater since the day you were born!” Also avoid my personal favorite, “Every year there are amazing kids like you who don’t get accepted anywhere!” All of these things may be true, but hearing them from a parent is torture. Kids applying to competitive colleges already put enough pressure on themselves. They don’t need more served up at breakfast.

3. Have unreasonable expectations

My neighbor once waved a brochure in my face and told me “Harvard’s been calling” for her daughter. Now, my neighbor’s daughter is a lovely person who graduated in the top 25% of her class and was often on Honor Roll. The idea that Harvard would for some reason be in active pursuit was absurd, but worse, it illustrated the kind of overblown expectations the kid was living with. Most parents I know were sure their toddlers were geniuses and potential gold medalists. By the time the kids reach high school, however, we all need to be realistic about the schools that will be a good fit.

4. Be an embarrassment

Some colleges have started separating kids from parents during tours and info sessions. I think it’s a great idea, as it allows each end of the age gap to ask as many embarrassing questions as they want. Teen-cringing moments I’ve seen firsthand include the scowling mom who asked the Vassar tour guide, “Why are there so many girls here?,” and the alarmed dad who, when viewing a substance-free dorm at Wesleyan, gasped, “You mean the other dorms have substances?”

Let your kid take the lead. If you are invading the tour guide’s personal space, gushing about what the school was like in your day, there’s very little chance your teenager will want to say anything.

5. Nothing

While you need to respect boundaries during this agonizing process, it’s not good to be an indifferent lump. I’ve known parents who refused to facilitate college visits or pay for applications in a misguided effort to be “hands off.” Your kids want your support, your enthusiasm, and maybe your editing. They probably need help planning college tours, and paying for standardized tests and applications. If applying for financial aid, they will need a lot of help, as well as information about the family’s finances that you may never have shared with them. Being supportive and checking in throughout the application process will almost always be appreciated by your child. Remember: being supportive is different than ghost-writing the entire application!

If your own anxiety about your kid’s college applications turns you into a nightmare parent, you should consider hiring a college consultant or coach. A good coach knows exactly where the line is between supporting and nagging, between encouraging and babying, and yes, between editing and ghost-writing.

About the Author


I am an internationally produced playwright and novelist with 26 years of experience in Ivy League admissions. I earned my MFA from the University of Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop and was a Senior Fellow in playwriting at Dartmouth College, where I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude.

I received a grant from the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays, a project in cooperation with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. My debut fantasy novel LightLand, published by Scholastic/Orchard Books, earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

I live with my husband and children in a Connecticut farmhouse.