The Six Words About College That Disappoint Parents Most

Editor’s note: This essay was first published on Counselors’ Corner.

I had a chance to discuss the bigger world of college admission with some local counselors at a recent college breakfast, where admission officers from five colleges gave us brief updates on life at their campuses.  They opened up their presentation to questions at the end, and it’s my habit to ask them about advice for parents—if colleges could give one recommendation to the parents who have to watch their children apply to college, what would it be?

I’ve asked this question of many college admission officers over the years, and the response is always the same: Let the child drive the bus.

Long before the helicopter/snowplow/lawnmower parent, it was clear to colleges that many students were applying to college in name only.  It was easier to tell this when all applications were filed on paper, since the handwriting of many students—particularly the boys—looked remarkably like that of their mothers’.  Most applications are online now, but that doesn’t mean colleges can’t sort out when parents have played too big a part in the application process.  And according to most colleges, any part parents play in the completion of an application is too big a part.

Colleges urge parents to let their child take charge of the application process for one simple reason—it’s the child who is going to college.  A student who’s “too busy to apply” (a favorite excuse parents use to fill out the form) is making a statement about what they’ll be able to give to the college experience. And the student who’s “too shy to talk about themselves” may get admitted thanks to the bolder tone of the essay a parent writes—but that isn’t the voice the college will hear in classroom discussions or in community activities.  Colleges use the application to understand who they’re getting if they say yes to the applicant, and they take plenty of shy or busy students.  They just need to know that’s who the student is.

A second reason colleges want the student to own the college application process is because of the training it provides for college.  Applying to college is typically more than just filling out a form.  It’s about conveying information, brainstorming essay topics, editing ideas, organizing others in the submission of teacher letters and transcripts, meeting deadlines, seeking help from a counselor on the direction of your college search, and honoring the integrity of the process by being honest in all of your answers.  Since these are many of the same skills that will lead to successfully negotiating the college experience, the college application is a test drive of a big part of college.  Your transcript may tell colleges you can pass tests, but your application is supposed to tell what the experience behind all that test-taking has taught you.

This “student first” attitude is just as important in any communication with the college.  Parents hoping the counselor will “put in a good word” for the student don’t understand that colleges much prefer hearing from the student than from the counselor, and parents who pester the college admission office with questions are certainly making their child memorable, but in the wrong way.  There’s nothing wrong with speaking up for a student who may get lost in the shuffle, but assuming that’s going to happen from the start speaks volumes about the parent’s faith in their child, and in the college.  They didn’t become a state champion soccer player by having Mommy or Daddy kick the ball.  Applying to college is no different.

NACAC Past President Patrick O’Connor is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools (MI). He has served as president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling and is the author of two books — College Counseling for School Counselors: Delivering Quality, Personalized College Advice to Every Student on Your (Sometimes Huge) Caseload and College is Yours 2.0: Preparing, Applying, and Paying for Colleges Perfect for You. You can read more from O’Connor’s on The Huffington Post and Counselors’ Corner blog.

6 thoughts on “The Six Words About College That Disappoint Parents Most”

  1. I’m a high school counselor. Several years ago, I had a memorable February conversation with our admission rep from a selective university. Asking about a particular student’s chances for admission and whether he had shown adequate ‘demonstrated interest,’ the rep paused and then replied: “Good news and bad news. We do care about demonstrated interest, but the bad news is that your student has not shown much. The good news is that his mother has shown a LOT of demonstrated interest. Unfortunately, that’s not really good news.”

  2. I work with college parents all of the time, and they are always so well intentioned. They want what is best for their child. It is so important that they hear this message and understand why more help isn’t always help. Thanks for this message and reminder to parents to move to the sidelines.

  3. I have heard this trope often – let the students drive the bus. Well, maybe for some students, but for most students they don’t have any perspective – many don’t even have a driver’s license!
    Parents are my most important allies. I urge them not to abdicate their unique and essential position in their student’s life. They know their child; they know their financial situation and they know life!
    I certainly agree that students should take the lead when communicating with colleges. But there is so much more work to be done in the process when parents are essential.

    As teenagers, many students feel that their parents might not be as smart as they once thought. Indeed, I have heard counselors reinforce this idea. As counselors, we are only in their lives for a very short period. Their parents are in for the long haul and I do think that students benefit from the reassurance that their parents are smart and reliable!

    As counselors, I believe we can act as family advocates as well as student advocates. United, students will be best prepared to make this important decision.

  4. A new client family came into my office seeking help for their last-minute senior. I presented my perspective on the role of the parent and student during this learning experience for everyone. I said that colleges can smell ghostwriters and that their daughter needs to write the essays. The daughter turns to her dad, glaring at him as if to say my comment hit a nerve for them. Dad pipes in that he used to write his daughter’s essays because he was a lawyer and lawyers know how to write. But he stopped. This prompted a poignant question as to why he stopped. His daughter cut him off bringing truth to the table. Dad sheepishly admitted he’s started to get Cs on her papers. Let’s here it for teens who have courage, morals and sense of self to be excited and fully engaged in upcoming life’s transitions.

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