What Parents Should (And Should Not) Do To Help Their Child Into College

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“I’m not a parent hater. There are just certain things we don’t like to see.”

So goes the polite disclaimer given by Don Bishop, head of admissions at the University of Notre Dame. In a previous interview, Bishop — who serves as the official gatekeeper for prospective students wanting to get into Notre Dame’s top-ranked Mendoza College of Business — expressed his displeasure with behaviors exhibited by parents of prospective students.

“If I could change one thing, it would be to force parents back into the background and have students to emerge,” shared Bishop, the associate vice president of undergraduate enrollment. “I think this generation of parents have this belief that I’m trying to understand. They have a belief that it’s okay for them to step in front of their kids and fight for them. What I would tell you is that it’s not. It’s unwelcome and could be counterproductive.”

Ouch. Unwelcome and counterproductive? In other words, parents could be doing more harm than good when it comes to guiding their children through the college admissions process and not even know it. To add to it, it’s highly likely they’re leaving a bad taste in the mouths of admissions administrators along the way.

It’s not to suggest that parents should be totally disengaged. After all, this is a consumer market and a college education at a school like Notre Dame is a big ticket item — $71,801 for one year at Notre Dame to be precise. There aren’t too many 17- and 18-year-olds walking around with that sort of personal wealth. In this regard, Bishop says parents should be 100% hands-on when it comes to working with financial aid contacts at a college or university.

Jim Bryan, associate dean of BBA programs at SMU Cox, says parents should be involved, but let the student be the driver. Photo courtesy of Cox School of Business

For this reason, Jim Bryan, associate dean of BBA programs at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business says he doesn’t subscribe much to the rhetoric that parents need to excuse themselves from the process. “For a lot of people, this is the biggest purchase other than a house and sometimes it’s more than a house,” Bryan says. “The hard part is this rhetoric that says parents have got to back off, but the reality is the parents have to pay the bill so they have to be involved. I’d encourage them to play a part, but they have to let the student be the driver, the one reaching out to admissions and other administrators gathering information.”

For the most part, admissions gatekeepers agree that parents should tread lightly. In a round-up of do’s and don’ts, a group of admissions pros offer their best advice for parents and students including one clever tidbit from Megan Ray at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business suggesting students become the CEO of their college search process while Notre Dame’s Don Bishop suggests parents consider taking on the role of executive assistant.


Across the board, the consistent theme from admissions officers is that the student should be in charge. While this may seem unfathomable for parents who have grown accustomed to making most decisions for their child, admissions officers say this is the time for parents and guardians to transition themselves from key decision-makers to more of a support role.

“When I meet with students and families, I encourage the student to become the CEO of their own college search process,” says Megan Ray, the associate director of the undergraduate program at the Kelley School.Having your student set up a twice weekly ‘Team College’ meeting to review tasks with family members and update on deadlines and progress on applications puts the student in the ‘driver’s seat.’”

Notre Dame’s Don Bishop offers up a similar analogy.

“The student should ask one parent to serve as her or his executive assistant for their junior and senior year in high school,” he says. “The student can interview both parents for this non-paid position, but should ultimately put one parent in the role of organizer. The parent in this role would be given permission by their student to keep a schedule of activities needed to search, apply, and choose a college. The parent would remind the student of important time dates to complete parts of the process. He or she would also be entitled to require their student prepare to meet these deadlines that were mutually agreed upon. This effort will not be nagging the student since the student and parent had agreed previously that deadlines existed and that the date of these deadlines are now upon them.”

Says Ray, “Create a system for the important deadlines and tasks. What system does your family currently use: Google calendar, paper calendar, etcetera? Add the application and scholarship deadlines and revisit these each week during your ‘Team College’ meeting.”


With the prospective student in place as CEO and the parent fully operating as executive assistant, the assistant’s job is to uncover what’s important to their boss and field them only the information they are interested in.

“Help your student identify what elements are important. Is it cost, curriculum, career development opportunities, study abroad, location, or atmosphere? Having a defined list will help you and your student narrow down the options,” Ray says.

SMU Cox’s Jim Bryan concurs.

“I think parents should encourage their students to look at a diverse set of colleges,” he tells Poets&Quants. “Look at small schools and big schools, public schools and private schools, schools in your price range and schools out of your price range, near your hometown and not near your hometown. I encourage parents to help their students do a real college search.”

“One you’ve established your priorities and created a core list of schools,” adds Ray, “ask your student if they’d like you to do a pre-screen on materials that arrive in the mailbox. Editing the amount of brochures and pamphlets to review may reduce confusion and lower stress.”

Notre Dame’s Don Bishop puts it this way: “In my role, I receive 200 emails a day. However, I don’t read 200 emails a day. My executive assistant does. This person goes through all 200 emails and decides which emails come to me and which do not. If students and parents agree upon what they’re looking for, the mom or dad can screen all that stuff. They like doing that.”

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