Search >

    Be a Team Player

    Your involvement is crucial during your child's college search.

    Aaron Basko

    When it's time for the college search, there's bound to be some stress and tension between parents and their teens. Sometimes it can all feel quite overwhelming. Here's how one mom described a college visit with her daughter:

    "We were walking across campus after our tour, and I made the mistake of asking what she thought. She barked, 'You're always at me, always asking questions!' So I thought I would take the wiser path and keep quiet. Five minutes later, it's … 'Now you're not talking, you're guilt-tripping me!' This from my normally mature, well-balanced daughter. But this whole process is very unbalancing, and not only for her. I felt unbalanced, too … I think parents could use a support group."

    With or without a support group, the whole experience is, well, "very unbalancing." When it comes to helping a child with the college search, what's a parent to do?

    Facing the Future Together

    Some parents simply remove themselves from the whole search process. After years of training and guiding, they drop out of the race at the first sight of the goal line, telling themselves, "This is our child's decision. We'll support whatever she decides." But withdrawal isn't what your child needs. Or, in most cases, wants.

    "Believe it or not, kids want their parents' input," says Aubrey Quince, a student at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. "Let your student know your pros and cons, but also allow them to share what they feel. This is a very exciting time for young people, and it helps when they can sense your excitement, too!"

    Jay Mahan, assistant director in Mount Vernon's admissions office, couldn't agree more. "Ideally, a parent would be a guide in this process," Mahan says, "clarifying values, training the student to understand taxes and finances, helping to weigh benefits and drawbacks and modeling compromise and sacrifice. It can be a difficult and stressful balancing act, but it can also be a bonding time as the student begins to stand shoulder to shoulder with the parent, facing the future together."

    Let Them "Drive"

    Guidance expert Eric Bierker likes to use a driving metaphor to explain a balanced level of parental involvement. Bierker, who heads up College Transition Group (, says, "Remember the extra set of brakes the driver's ed instructor in high school had in the student-driver car? There was only one steering wheel but two sets of brakes, and a mouth that whispered—and sometimes frantically shouted—advice."

    His point: Be there right beside your teen throughout the process. Offer advice and guidance, but give your child decision-making power. For example, let your student be responsible for calling a school and setting up a college visit.

    Then during the visit, says Bierker, it's important that teens have time to be on their own. An overnight in a dorm while mom and dad spend the night at a hotel is a great way to let your teen "drive." Bierker also recommends giving your teen time to meet alone with admissions staff. He says these kinds of experiences will help your child become more comfortable with any future interactions they may have with college personnel. It's a nice step toward greater responsibility and independence.

    At the same time, parents need to be sure they get their own questions answered. They shouldn't just wait in the car while their son or daughter is in the admissions office. "I suggest they peruse the campus and talk to students," says Bierker. "After their child spends some time alone with the admissions people, parents can come into the interview and ask their own questions."

    An "Understated" Role

    Admissions offices see this "supportive role" as essential during the search process.

    "We see the parent's role as offering support while gathering valuable information," explains Sammie Playl, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at King College in Bristol, Tennessee. But Playl offers a word of caution about over-involvement.

    Read These Next

    This handy timeline will help you keep up with significant dates and deadlines.
    Avoid frustration with these simple tips.