I’m not gonna lie, the college application process is confounding!  I’m talking about a rollercoaster ride peppered with strange lingo, lots of steps to slog through and some emotions you may not be prepared for kind of confounding.

You’ll wrestle with acronyms like SAT, ACT, FAFSA, WACAC, NACAC and WUE. You will also need to get familiar with things like College Board, Naviance and the Common App. You’re going to need a plan, particularly if you’re navigating all of this for the first time. Don’t worry, I’ve been where you are, and I have some tips to share!

student with head on workbooks

10 tips for parents about to navigate the college application process 

Here are 10 pointers for parents about to navigate the college application process:

1. Forget everything you thought you knew about the process!  Frankly, your kid does not care how easy it was for you to apply to college “back in the day.”  These sentiments are not going to help this time around.  There is a lot to tackle in the current process, so roll up your sleeves and get ready to pour over lots of resources! 

2. Your level of involvement will depend on your child.  Did you think you wouldn’t be involved? Those who don’t have a teenaged “Type A” personality or the luxury of hiring a private counselor, will likely be involved in this process at some or possibly all points of the journey. But let your child take the lead, this is all about their future after all.  

3. Getting an early start will save your sanity. The summer between your student’s sophomore and junior year is a great time to focus on placement test prep, researching school programs and gathering resources. Start thinking about which teachers you want to ask for recommendation letters as well. The process is going to ramp up quickly once the school year starts. It’s wise to use the summer months to ready your efforts!

4. Establish an organization tracking system. There will be deadlines, fees, deposits and all sorts of communications with schools. There’s also going to be paperwork (yes, paperwork in the digital age!).  Put together an organizational system that makes sense to both you and your student.

Embrace school resources that may help you. The counseling office at my daughter’s high school had great month-by-month calendars to follow for both junior and senior years.  They provided a helpful roadmap to follow by laying out what tasks need to be tackled and when. They also listed college events on the high school campus. 

5. Be prepared to jump in and help unexpectedly. Parts of this journey will become a team sport. Some days you may be a sounding board, other days you may be needed for more. The college application process can quickly take over everything.

Junior year is also an important and busy one academically. The added burden will add stress, plain and simple, making even minute tasks overwhelming. You can help in many ways (aside from what your kids might see as “parental nagging.”). One night my help came in the form of finding a YouTube tutorial on how to match Common App and Naviance accounts! It’s not a very straightforward process! 

College visit black male student holding notebook with white girl students in the background

6. Schedule college visits as soon as possible. There are limited slots for college tours, and they fill up! This is particularly true of you’re passing through the area around Spring break.  If a school doesn’t guarantee you spots in a tour don’t worry, we simply “joined” more than one and nobody was the wiser! Although my secret may be out now! 

7. Combine a college tour (or tours) with a vacation.  Is that not your idea of a good time? It can be!  My daughter wanted to check out a half dozen California universities including Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UC Santa Barbara, San Diego State and UC San Diego.  See our tips about turning a San Diego college visit into a vacation.

Can you think of better reason for a California road trip? We spent Spring Break visiting campuses and popping in on fun local spots students may patronize if attending college in the area. (We even let her pretend she didn’t know us in a few of them.) We also found time to blow off steam at touristy places like the Santa Monica Pier and Old Town San Diego. 

We learned a lot; we had a lot of fun and in the process, we exposed our younger child to the possibilities that lie ahead in higher education. It was a win-win! Here’s how we planned our college tours vacation

8. Be realistic and honest with your student.  Parents, please repeat this until is sinks in, “The college application process is A LOT more competitive than it was when I applied.” Don’t sweat it if your student doesn’t get into where you had hoped. Helping your kiddo develop a realistic and balanced college list will go along way in easing the tensions of the situation. 

9. Manage your emotions.  It’s an exciting time filled with possibilities and you’re going to experience some emotions over the course of it.  You may not believe it now but, they will likely sneak up on you. Over the course of my daughter’s entire senior year, just the thought of her living elsewhere produced a lump in my throat. Launching a babe from the nest is not easy on parents so take some time on your own to acknowledge your feelings and take care of yourself as well. 

10. Offer loving behind the scenes support. Instill self-advocacy in your student. It’s one of the most important life-skills your kids can take with them to college! It’s hard to step back and not “do” for your kids but, it’s necessary. Once they’re out of your home, you’re not going to be there to solve every problem. 

Whether it be with teachers, guidance counselors or university representatives, encourage your student to speak on their own behalf.  I accompanied my daughter to several events and fairs where she nudged me into explaining what she needed.  I’ll admit it, I caved more than once. But eventually I came to realize the wrong person was doing the talking. 

Final thoughts: The process is stressful.  Have I mentioned this? Multiple times, you say?  I do that because I received multiple warnings beforehand and choose to brush them off.  Believe me, it’s easy to do!

Had I embraced this reality beforehand, my approach may have been more strategic. Unfortunately, work, school, soccer practice, robotics team competitions and the competing schedules of other family members easily get in the way of such things. We found though that simple assurances are effective too — “We’re here for you,” “We’ll support you,” “Yes, I’ll read your essay if you really want me to.”  These are only a few of the assurances we offered. 

While I do not have one of those teenaged type A personalities I mentioned earlier, I raised a smart cookie.  She was invested in the process, so her parents were happy to join her support crew! You can do it too!  Avail yourself to all the online resources and info sessions you can! Encourage students to meet with guidance counselors. But most importantly, make sure they take care of themselves during this stressful time by encouraging good mental and physical habits.  Good luck, you’ve got this!