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

Don Bishop is the Associate Vice President for Enrollment at the University of Notre Dame. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame


As students journey through their teenage years on their way to adulthood, high school becomes critical for personal development and identity formation. Because of this, Notre Dame’s Don Bishop says those four years should be spent as they’re meant and that is simply being a high school student.

“Increasingly, parents are encouraging the entire four years of high school as a staging ground for application to colleges,” says Bishop. “Students are losing an important four years that shouldn’t be overly focused on college admissions, but should be spent being a student, going through the normal changes and formation that a 14- to 18-year-old should go through. Parents have overly coached them and told them these four years are for getting into college.”


For students who adhere to Bishop’s regimen of doing their best while maintaining proper balance between performing well and still enjoying their high school years, there is a word of caution for parents. Bryan at SMU Cox says parents should encourage their students not to let senioritis set in.

“If you’ve turned your brain off for a year, you’re going to struggle in the first year,” Bryan says. “Parents should encourage students to take as challenging a load in senior year as possible. It’s really the transition that makes or breaks students the first year of college. Encourage students to stay academically involved during their senior year.”


College tours are a hallmark to the college selection process. A visit to campus enables students to go beyond a school’s website and marketing brochures to see, feel, and touch the environment and culture of an institution for themselves.

Megan Ray recommends the campus visit saying, “If it’s in your family’s budget, you can get a lot of information in person that’s hard to tease out online. That said, setting up a conference call with an admissions team member is the next best option.”

If and when students do make their rounds for campus visits, it is in the parents’ best interests to do more listening than talking.

“Parents tend to start commenting right away to their students on everything they’re seeing. The student hates that because they feel the parent is trying to manipulate their impression of everything,” says Bishop. “Smart parents stand back and let their student ask the questions a much as possible. Maybe at the end of the conversation they ask a question, but the parent should not be jumping in front of the conversation. Let the sutent take the initiative on the tour. Parents also shouldn’t start summarizing what they saw at the end of the visit. Simply listen until they ask for your opinion.”

Another no-no when it comes to campus visits is visiting during off-peak times, says SMU’s Jim Bryan.

“It’s really important to see it while students are there,” he says. “One of our busiest admissions visiting weeks is the traditional spring break. We’re open, but no students are here. You can visit over the summer and spring break, but that can’t be the only time you visit. When choosing your college you have two questions to answer. Is this university worthy of my application? But the much bigger question is: is this university worthy of my tuition dollars? You need to see the college once and then go back and really pretend to be a student for a day or two. Talk to students, eat lunch in the cafeteria, talk to faculty and administrators, see the dorms if you can because you’re going to live there.”


Once a student has narrowed down their choices and they’re ready to apply to schools, Bishop suggests parents continue in their support role as executive assistant. So when it comes to students writing their essays, “How much should parent be involved?” he asks. “The parent, like the teacher, could look at what they’ve written and just give them feedback of if it sounds like them and portrays them well. Feedback could include sayings such as ‘You’re a remarkable leader, but you didn’t even talk about it.’ On essays, there’s a way to assert yourself so parents can help guide overly humble students or those at the opposite end who make something sound like it’s a bigger deal than it truly is.

Lisa Beisser, director of admissions and strategic initiatives at Kenan-Flagler Business School, advises parents to help students learn from disappointment if they don’t get in. Photo courtesy of Kenan-Flagler Business School

“Parents shouldn’t write the first draft or heavily outline the essay. Let students come up with their best effort then comment on it tell them to have teachers look at it. I even tell them to have a best friend look at it. Then ask, ‘Is this me? Does it capture me?’”


At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, students spend their first year immersed in general education requirements. Afterward, they’re permitted to apply to the Kenan-Flagler Business School in their sophomore year. With a 50% admission rate, the school’s director of admissions and strategic initiatives, Lisa Beisser, says the school gets a fair amount of disgruntled parents when students don’t make it in. For these parents — who sometimes call anonymously or ask that their call be kept under wraps — Beisser’s advice centers on handling disappointment. “If they’re not admitted we encourage parents to help students deal with and learn from disappointment,” she says. “Help them see the broader perspective. There’s value to be found in reevaluating things and finding ways to improve or do things differently. In that sense, the disappointment ends up being beneficial for students to experience.”


Finally, most college administrators will tell you college has as much to do with exploring and finding one’s true passions as it does with locking down a high-paying job. With that said, a big no-no for parents is to steer kids in a direction they may not be passionate about.

Says Kelley’s Megan Ray, “Do not assume that your student’s interests will remain the same. The average Kelley student changes her major four times. With 18 available business majors, there’s a lot of opportunities to explore. Help your student identify a range of interests and seek institutions that will offer multiple paths to success.”

“In this process, it’s important for parents to understand that the outcome of where their child gets admitted and where they attend school is not reflective of them,” Bishop says. “Parents push kids to certain colleges and majors because they want a certain result they can brag about. If they tell you they don’t want to be a doctor or a business major, listen to them. Don’t over-lead a student on picking a major.”

Finally, a word of cautionary advice from Bishop as he reminds parents that colleges and universities aren’t just prepping students to land their first jobs. “Parents think they know more than they do, but I would inform them that careers are not the careers they planned for when they were their kid’s age. High end jobs may be concentrated in Wall Street right now, but they’re not going to be there in 10 to 20 years. Eventually, most of that is going to be artificial intelligence and done by computers so they have to be prepared to go beyond Wall Street. Things are going to change. Colleges know this and the way we’re teaching them is to prepare them for it.”


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