From Parent to College Counselor: Helping Your Child Apply to College

Eudora Okine

This year has brought with it a lot of new responsibilities. Parents have pretty much taken the brunt of it. Between balancing work and home life in the midst of a global pandemic, you’ve spent the last months juggling several hats. Many of you have even had to take on roles that you have no prior experience in, like being a teacher. You’ve had to help your children navigate the complex space of online learning. And now for parents with high-school aged children, there’s a new challenge that may be presenting itself: helping your child apply for college.

Now, thankfully, high school college counselors have not suddenly gone extinct. They will still be present for you and your child to serve as a resource, to provide advice for academic choices and to write recommendation letters to support your child’s applications. But just like with teaching, it’s now up to you to help them bridge the gap between virtual and in-person support for approaching college. Especially when it comes to the college search process.

So here are my 6 most important tips for helping your child navigate the college search process as a parent:

1. Start With A List

And NOT a list of universities! I mean a list of things your child is looking for in a university. This is the first and most important step in helping your child apply for college.

I emphasize your child because I’m aware that as a parent one has dreams and hopes and expectations for their child and where they might end up. But this is such a great opportunity to listen and learn more about who your child is becoming/hopes to become in future, and the kind of environment they thrive in.

Do they want a large or small campus? A large student body or a small one? How much does diversity matter to them, and what does it mean to them? What majors might be of interest to them? Do they want to study abroad – for a year, or possibly all four? What types of activities would they want to be part of? Do they want to ski to class on winter mornings, or do they prefer sunshine all year round? What values do they hold that they would want to see represented in the ethos and community?

Your job is to ask the questions – especially the ones they might not have even thought about yet – and listen to their answers. Then have a conversation about what all these things might look like for them. The idea is to develop a broad enough perspective such that they understand the pros and cons of all the alternatives.

2. Develop a List of Candidates

I chose the word candidates on purpose. When helping your child apply to college, you have to get them into the mindset of understanding they are are choosing us as much as we are choosing them. They do have power and agency in the process, and that partly comes in the form of their college list. 70% of our jobs as universities is making sure WE make YOUR list, so that should tell you just how important it is.

Because you’ve already outlined what you and your child have decided best suits them in terms of a college experience, this task is much easier. You know for the most part what you’re looking for. And it’s exciting learning about institutions and figuring out all the ways they might fit into your child’s vision.

Set time each week to sit down and research schools. Make a project out of it. Look at brochures together and browse websites. Go on a virtual tour. If you’re looking to get a better sense of the student body experience and culture, check out videos on youtube, read blogs like this one, and even get on social media.

You can even call up admissions offices to ask specific questions about the university or the application process they can’t find answers to online. But, please, let them engage with us and do the talking. If you have questions, empower them to ask them for you. This is where they’ll learn to develop skills of inquiry if they don’t already have them. It will help develop a confidence for seeking out information, and asking for direction when they need it.

3. Attend Virtual Informations Sessions Together

Helping your child apply for college seems like it used to be more of an adventure. The era of college visit road trips might be on hold, but the great news is that you can experience it right from the comfort of your home. Being completely virtual was a daunting challenge for universities at first. Now we recognize just how many new opportunities this has presented us. We can reach more students around the world with a greater range of offerings. And we can tailor those offerings specifically for different audiences.

At NYU we have almost daily information sessions for our campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. In addition, we have sessions for parents and sessions to help students navigate the Common Application. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for everything we have planned this fall.

So make an event of it. Grab some popcorn and a notepad and learn more about our institutions.

4. Schedule Meetings With Your Child's Guidance Counselor

It’s so important that you and your child are in lockstep with their guidance counselor during this whole process. Counselors are by no means gatekeepers to institutions, but they’ve been at this a while. They have relationships with institutions around the world, and an understanding of what might make your child competitive. They know, based on your child’s academics and testing, what might be a reach or safety school. And they can help your order your college list in order both fit and priority. Also, they may know of some great schools that fit your child’s criteria but didn’t make the list.

They’re also your child’s second-best advocate when it comes to the application process (your child being the first). Their letters of recommendation are invaluable for giving us insight into what a student will bring to our campus community. As such, you want to encourage your child to connect with their counselor. They should discuss not just what schools they want to apply to, but what their motivations, interests and goals are.

5. Have an Open and Honest Conversation About Finances

My father and I had one conversation about college finances: that he couldn’t afford them. While some might find that too harsh for a teenager, it gave me the clarity I needed in my college search and application process. I knew that if I was going to get into one of my top choices – in fact any of my choices at all – I was going to have to find the means to do so.

This meant that I had to make sure my academic profile was stellar, and my financial aid/outside scholarship forms were filled out thoroughly. In addition, I made sure my essays clearly outlined not just who I was, but what an asset I would be to their community. Once I got in on a full scholarship, I still knew I’d have to work through college to further support myself. I went in with a clear understanding of what I would need to do to succeed.

Statistically, finances are a large reason why students drop out of college, or don’t finish within four years. A frank conversation about what you can or cannot afford as a family will help your child make better choices throughout the process.

6. Be Your Child's Biggest Cheerleader

The college search and application process can be a daunting one. The idea of “selling yourself” is always intimidating. The thought of “competing” with hundreds of thousands of students around the world just as great as you can make you feel very small. But it’s important for them to know that they are not small at all. They are important. Their stories and experiences matter. We value their unique experiences and perspectives, and so should they.

When helping your child apply to college, take every opportunity to boost their confidence throughout the process. Reminding your child just how great they are and painting a picture of all the possibilities that lie ahead of them is priceless. It will give them the courage to put themselves out there, and to really put themselves on paper in the best light possible.