College admissions are stressful enough. Parents, don’t make it worse.

(Bianca Jelezniac/Illustration for The Washington Post)
9 min

“Do I need to start a club? My dad says I have to start a club to get into college.”

“I’m afraid if I don’t get into a ‘good’ college, my mom won’t be proud of me when she talks to her friends.”

“I can’t apply there. My dad says it’s not a good school.”

“I’m going to be the first failure in my family.”

As a counselor who specializes in college admissions and a parent of high-schoolers myself, these are the types of comments I hear regularly from students. I could write a book on how applying to college has become the pressure cooker it is. Instead, I want to focus on the one thing parents do have control over in this process: ourselves.

I know from sometimes devastating firsthand experience that our kids are struggling, and we can’t wait for colleges or the College Board or anyone else to change the process. It’s up to us to support our kids in a way that ensures they don’t just get into college, but also thrive once they’re there.

Here are a few ways parents can take the pressure off our high school seniors.

Do your own work first

If we want our students to breathe easier about the admissions process, we have to breathe easier first.

“One of the most important ways to take the pressure off your teen their senior year is to take the pressure off of ourselves,” said Lisa Heffernan, author and co-founder of the website Grown and Flown and the mother of three college graduates.

“We should remind ourselves again and again that there are lots of incredible opportunities awaiting our teens at the next stage in their lives,” Heffernan said. “There is no single path, no route they must follow. A year from now, we want the teenager leaving our homes to feel confident, loved and able to begin to take on the responsibilities of adult life. Our parenting senior year should be toward these ends.”

“I think most parents — if they will really talk to their friends and think about their network — will realize pretty quickly that success is nonlinear, and there are a lot of paths to it,” said Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech. “Very few rely solely on where you go to college.” You have to truly believe that if you have any hope of your child believing it.

Be careful not to think of your child’s higher-education choices as a bullet point on your parenting résumé, either. The bumper sticker on your car will not validate your parenting, and an Ivy League diploma will not guarantee your child’s success — especially if they show up on that Ivy League campus broken and miserable from the process of getting there.

“Believe in your student more than you believe in a name brand,” urged test prep expert and college counselor Jennifer Jessie. “You have to have an unwavering belief that you prepared your student for the challenges ahead.”

“Care more about your student than the name on the sweatshirt.”

Establish a time or day to talk about college

Parents will often bring up the subject of college or applications whenever they snag a second with their elusive high school seniors. If you don’t want your wary teenager to start avoiding you from fear that you might bring up the “C” word again, set a time or day when you agree you are allowed to bring it up and they can expect a discussion.

“Build it into your weekly routine, so your kids can anticipate it,” said Ohio-based clinical psychologist Sarah Cain Spannagel. “Ask them when the topic is definitely off-limits, like at the dinner table, driving home from a game or around siblings and friends.” Your kids need to trust that you are a safe place for them, especially during their senior year.

Ask family members not to bring up the subject at holidays, especially Thanksgiving or Christmas, when deadlines or decisions are looming, Heffernan said. “Part of the pressure placed on seniors is the endless string of questions from loving, well-meaning adults.”

Watch your language

One of the first things I stress to parents is to be thoughtful about the way we talk about college.

The phrase “safety school” doesn’t sound like a place anyone wants to end up. Try referring to colleges as “likelier,” “targets” or “reaches.” Challenge yourself to define what a “good college” is. All colleges and universities have strengths and weaknesses; I could tell you something “good” about just about any of them.

Another term to abolish from your vocabulary: “dream school.”

“For me, the ‘dream college’ is one of the most dangerous terms in admissions. It creates a singular focus,” Jessie said.

“My favorite question to tell people to ask an admissions officer is: ‘I love this college; it seems like a dream. We both know you don’t accept every single student who applies, though. What colleges would you say give the same feel and vibe and share the same commitments as this college?’ ” Jessie said. “I’ve seen students add a lot of ‘quasi-dream’ colleges to their lists that way, and then, even if they are rejected from their ‘dream college,’ they end up at colleges they love, using this method.”

Prioritize visiting ‘likelier’ schools

Often, the first thing parents want to do when they start planning college visits is book a flight to Boston. Parents love to make the pilgrimage to Cambridge and pick up a crimson sweatshirt of their own.

But Harvard most recently accepted just 3.19 percent of its 61,220 applicants. It would be far more helpful — and would send an important message to your teenager — to prioritize trips to likelier options, such as to those with acceptance rates above 70 percent, for example. If students can imagine themselves on those quads, it can make a huge difference in how they receive their eventual admissions decisions.

If you must visit Harvard, also take tours of neighboring schools with a variety of acceptance rates, such as Boston University, Suffolk University, Emerson College or the University of Massachusetts Boston, to name a few.

Consider not reading their essays

As a high-schooler, I asked my father, a Princeton English major, to read my college essay. He returned it covered in red scribbles. My stomach dropped, and my throat tightened as I held back stinging tears, a feeling I remember 30 years later. In hindsight, his edits were good, but for my hopeful 17-year-old heart, they were devastating.

Some students want their parents to read their personal essays, and some most definitely do not. Don’t push it if they want to keep it to themselves. If your child asks you to read their essay, it’s okay to point out a typo, but you should refer them to a counselor or teacher for more substantive edits. Treat that essay like the picture they drew you when they were 4 years old: To you, it’s brilliant. Let other people give constructive criticism. Save the red ink and just tell your kid that you’re proud of them.

Celebrate every win

When your student receives any acceptance letter, make it a big deal, Clark said. “Celebrate every win. Treat every acceptance with the same level of enthusiasm.”

Every university your child applies to should be one they would be excited to attend, and shrugging off acceptances to their likelier schools only makes the decision letters from more selective schools feel more important. When your high school senior finds out they’re going to college, whether it’s to Stanford or State U Down the Street, do your equivalent of a touchdown dance. This should be a fun and happy moment for all of you.

Be on hug duty

Try not to manage the college admissions process for your almost-adult children. Once you’re reasonably sure your student understands the process and the general timeline, back off. It’s hard to be both your child’s mom or dad and their college counselor at the same time. Go back to the basics: Feed them, hug them and love them. Don’t let college applications be what either of you remembers the most when you look back on these last moments of their childhood.

Remember: Many colleges and universities accept more than half of their applicants. “There is a college out there looking for your child,” Jessie said. “At the end of the day, colleges need students. Even the most rejective colleges need students.”

Those colleges want your children just the way they are. “Encourage your child to be authentic in this process,” said Karen Richardson, dean of admission at Princeton University. “Admission offices are looking to understand who an applicant is, what’s important to them and how they think about things. There’s no ‘right’ answer. Allow them to be themselves.”

Making our kids feel loved should be the primary goal during their senior year. “We do some of our most important parenting when our children are applying to college,” Heffernan said. “Our teens live in a world of unrelenting judgment. It can be easy to underestimate just how hard this can be on them.

“They need to know, whatever path their lives take, our love goes with them.”

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