How to Help Your Teen With College Applications Without Being Annoying

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It’s hard to believe I have a 17-year-old going into her senior year of high school. Like any parent, I worry about how she will manage the college application process ... but I have to resist the urge to meddle. Guide, yes. Be a buttinsky stepmom with a scarlet letter on my chest? Nope.

According to Jeannie Borin, president and founder of College Connections, LLC, my instincts to keep my distance are right. “Parents should have a healthy but not overbearing involvement in the college application process,” said Borin. “They can help with time management and organization by obtaining supplemental recommendations, collecting transcripts, reviewing applications, and being open to discussion.”

Adds Susan Antonelli, assistant dean for student life at Simmons College in Boston, “You may dream of your kid going to your alma mater, but let them have their own college experience. Encourage your student to look at a lot of different types of schools: Big, small, mid-size, single-sex, and religiously affiliated if that works for your family. Without stepping on the campus, it's not a great idea to rule out a category of schools.”  

There are more than 4,000 colleges to choose from in the US. Talk about overwhelming! That’s why it’s important to (gently) encourage your child to do her homework early. Students need to thoroughly research schools and thoughtfully compile their own criteria to narrow their lists. “Variables like cost, location, programs, and campus life at each college could determine where students choose to apply,” said Borin. “Since there are no guarantees in admissions, it's vital to have a balanced college list and be protected.”

teenager applying to college

Antonelli urges parents to let kids stretch. Drafting a solid list of reach, match, and safety schools is crucial. “I know that it's really tempting to try to protect your student from any disappointment and tell them not to apply to reach schools,” said Antonelli. “But you never know what the school might be looking for as they build their class.”

To help parents with this overwhelming but exciting process, we have a month-by-month college application checklist courtesy of our experts and to position your child for success. 

August Before Senior Year

• Register for the September ACT if appropriate (check ACT dates).

• Come up with a preliminary list of colleges that includes reach, match, and safety schools.

• Explore the websites of the colleges that interest your child to learn about admissions requirements.

• Urge your child to review The Common Application and begin thinking about potential topics for her personal essay.

• Think about incorporating social media into the mix. Many students create blogs, websites, or LinkedIn profiles to get noticed as a lot of admissions officers are active on the site. “Students should distinguish themselves authentically by actions they take that involve their interests,” said Borin. “It's not enough to tell what they would like to do. It is essential to show what they have done and are doing.” 


• Register for October or November SAT and SAT subject exams (check SAT dates).

• Remind your student to meet with her guidance counselor to discuss the colleges to which she’s thinking of applying.

• Request letters of recommendation, especially if she’s applying early.

• Visit colleges and meet with admissions representatives.

• Request applications from all the schools to which she might apply. Create an account with The Common Application, if the colleges selected use it.

• Create a chart of deadlines. Pay particular attention to early decision, early action, and preferred application deadlines.

• If appropriate, register for the October ACT exam.

• Work on college essays.

• Encourage her to strengthen her academic record and assume a leadership position in an extracurricular activity.


• Take the SAT, SAT subject exams, and/or ACT as appropriate.

• Continue to research schools to narrow the list to roughly six to eight schools.

• Check the Facebook and Twitter pages of her preferred schools. Many provide timely updates and information.

• Take advantage of college fairs and virtual tours.

• Complete applications if she’s applying for early admission or early action.

• Research financial aid and scholarships. "I do think it's important to have an honest conversation about the types of colleges that will work for the family," said Antonelli. "Is a private college financially feasible or will your child need to go to a state school? Obviously, financial aid is available at private schools, but it's a good idea to get a sense of what is possible before she falls in love with a college."

• Does your employer offer college scholarships for employee children? Make sure you ask. You may be surprised.

• Give her a nudge to get her college essay in shape and get feedback on her writing from a guidance counselor and a teacher.

• Request her high school transcript and check it for accuracy.

• Keep track of all application components and deadlines: Applications, test scores, letters of recommendation, and financial aid materials. An incomplete application will ruin her chances for admission.


• Register for the December SAT or ACT, if appropriate.

• Take the November SAT, if appropriate.

• Don't let her grades slide. It's easy to be distracted from schoolwork when working on applications. Senior slump can be disastrous for her admissions chances.

• Make sure she submits all components of her applications if applying to colleges with November deadlines for early decision or preferred application.

• Put the final touches on application essays, and get feedback on essays from counselors and/or teachers.

• Continue to research scholarships.

December - January

• Complete applications for regular admissions.

• Make sure all test scores are sent to colleges that require them.

• Confirm that letters of recommendation have been sent.

• Submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Financial Aid).

• If your child is accepted to a school through early decision, be sure to follow directions carefully. Submit required forms, and notify the other schools to which she applied of her decision.

• Continue to focus on grades and extracurricular involvement.

• Have midyear grades sent to colleges.

• Continue to keep track of all deadlines and application components.

• Continue to research scholarships. Apply for scholarships well in advance of deadlines.

February - March

• If your child submitted the FAFSA, she should receive the Student Aid Report (SAR). Carefully look it over for accuracy. Errors can cost you thousands of dollars.

• Contact colleges that didn't send a confirmation receipt for her application.

• Don't put off applying to schools with rolling admissions or late deadlines -- the available spaces can fill up.

• Talk to your school about registering for AP exams.

• Remind her to keep her grades high. Colleges can revoke offers of admission if her grades fall senior year.

• Some acceptance letters may arrive. Compare financial aid offers and visit each campus before making a decision.

• Don't panic; many, many decisions are not mailed out until April.

• Continue applying for appropriate scholarships.


• Keep track of all acceptances, rejections, and waitlists.

• If waitlisted, learn more about waitlists and move ahead with other plans. 

• Keep grades up.

• If she has ruled out any colleges that accepted her, notify them. This is a courtesy to other applicants, and it will help the colleges manage their waitlists and extend the correct number of acceptance letters.

• Go to accepted student open houses, if offered.

• A couple circumstances may warrant an appeal of a college rejection.

May - June

• Avoid senioritis! An acceptance letter doesn't mean she can stop working (my brother almost lost his early admission decision by slacking for a semester of his senior year!).

• Most schools have a deposit deadline of May 1. Don't be late! If needed, you may be able to request an extension.

• Prepare for and take any appropriate AP exams. Most colleges offer course credit for high AP scores; this gives her more academic options when she gets to college.

• Have her final transcripts sent to colleges.

• Send thank-you letters to everyone who helped her in the application process. Encourage her to let her mentors and recommenders know the results of her college search.

• Keep on top of procuring student loans. Notify her college if she receives any scholarships.

What are you doing to help your child gear up for the college application process?


Images via masstravel/Flickr; © 

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