The View from the Bleachers: The Parent’s Role in the College Process

Time and time again parents sit in our office and reflect, “I don’t remember it being like this when I applied to college” and, indeed, the process has changed in some important ways over the past few decades. More colleges are making standardized testing optional, students are sending out more applications, and admissions is becoming increasingly competitive. As this process becomes increasingly complex and, unfortunately, increasingly stressful, there are several things parents can do to help their child make this a more rewarding and successful experience.

1. Applying to college is probably the longest, most involved, and most important decision your child has ever had to make. Start the process early so they’ll have plenty of time and space to consider his choices. Also recognize the emotional toll this process can take – this isn’t just about going off to college; it’s about leaving the known and loved to adjust to a routine that is completely unfamiliar in a place that is largely unknown without friends and family nearby. Almost everything in their lives will be different, and that’s a lot to think about.

2. Colleges offer some very enticing options including gourmet food service, dorm suites with full kitchens, athletic centers with climbing walls, and free cable. With all this sparkle and shine students can easily be distracted from focusing on what should be the most important part of their college experience – the academic program. Help your child assess the breadth and depth of courses offered in their intended major and the academic rigor at each college. Keep the appropriateness of the academic fit at the center of the decision making process.

3. Understand how your child learns, makes decisions, and processes information and play to your child’s strengths and teach them the skills he needs where they are weaker. If your child focuses on the physical aspects of the campus, point out how engaged students seem in class. If your child benefits from knowing ahead of time what they are going to see, spend time with them on websites and reading guidebooks before stepping onto campus. If your child tends to be impulsive, have them create lists of the pros and cons of each school to think through their decision more deeply.

4. Trust your child’s impressions of a college, even if yours are different. Perhaps you are aware of the Mosquito Sound which is a very high pitch that children can hear but adults can’t. In the same way, teenagers pick up wavelengths that we are no longer receptive to, but none-the-less exist.  Don’t be dismissive of your child’s observations, even if you didn’t see the same things. Instead ask them to explain what they saw or heard that made them come to these conclusions.

5. Help your child to understand that there is no right answer, only a best guess when it comes to choosing which colleges to apply to and where, ultimately, to matriculate. This is probably the first significant leap-of-faith decision your child has ever made and it can be helpful to talk to them about how to make this type of decision.

6. View the process of applying to college as just that – a process. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end and each child will go through the process in their own way, in his own time, hopefully taking on increasing responsibility and ownership. Ultimately, this is not just about “getting in”, but about developing self-awareness, clarifying values and becoming self-sufficient and self-directed. When parents become too involved, the student is denied the chance to go through this very maturing, self-actualizing process.

7. First row seats don’t always provide the best view and sometimes the best place to watch this process is from the bleachers. Try to be far enough back to get have a broad perspective.

About Allison Matlack

Allison W. Matlack, M.A.T., has devoted her professional life working with independent school students and helping them to find their personal success. For 12 years at AHP, Allison helped guide students and their families through the independent school and college planning process. Allison began her career teaching English at Westtown School in Westtown, Pennsylvania, where she also served as swim coach, dorm head, and associate dean of students. She found her work there as a college counselor, however, was especially rewarding as she helped students to identify their established and emerging abilities and interests and to make important choices about their educational paths. Since moving to the Boston area, Allison has taught Freshman Composition at a local college and Social Psychology at the Phillips Academy Summer Session. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Bates College and received a Master of Arts in Teaching from Tufts University. She and her husband enjoy gardening, biking, and travel. Her daughter is happily majoring in French at college in Pennsylvania where she was a recruited soccer player and her son is a senior at a boarding school in Connecticut where he is enjoying playing rec hockey and is pursuing his interests in art. Allison opened Matlack Educational Consulting in February, 2015.


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