22 Ways Parents Can Help (and Hurt) The College Application Process 

For many students, the college application process is all-consuming. The earlier you can begin conversations with your child about college, the less stress you and your child will experience along the way. 

Each year, acceptance becomes more competitive. In the 2019 to 2020 school year, the CommonApp reported a 21.3% increase in first-year applications. That means students must work harder to make their applications stand out. For many prospective students, having parental involvement in the application process may be just the edge they need.

Striking the right balance between helicopter parent and helpful parent is tough – and the last thing you want to do before you send your child off to college is alienate them. Struggling to decipher what is and isn’t helpful as your child starts the college planning process? We’re here to help.

The parent’s role in the college application process

As you watch your child prepare for the next stage of life, you might struggle to take a back seat as they assert their independence. Or if your child seems overwhelmed, you might feel the need to do more. Whatever your family’s situation, applying to college is not a one-person job. 

How parents can help the college application process 

It’s an age-old stereotype that teenagers don’t want their parents involved in their business — but the college admissions process is one place where students might welcome a helping hand. Here are a few ways to assist even the most hesitant of high school students. 

1. Empower your child 

When you begin the college application process, designate clear roles. Establish that you’re ready to help however needed, but your child is the leader. Encourage them. Validate their decision-making abilities. Applying to college is anxiety-inducing but it helps to know you have a trusting parent in your corner. 

2. Get organized 

Senior year of high school is full of deadlines and decision-making. Take some administrative work off your child’s plate by helping with organization. Create a calendar of application deadlines and target due dates to help students stay on top of their ever-growing to-do list. If possible, start the process during their junior year of high school.

3. Tackle standardized testing together

These days, taking the SAT or ACT isn’t always required. Outline the pros and cons. If your child decides to test, plan out when and how to prepare. If your family has the resources, consider hiring an SAT/ACT tutor or enrolling your child in a prep course.   

4. Act as a sounding board

As a parent, you have decades of wisdom that your child might not yet appreciate. Even if they’re not ready to listen, let them know that you’re always available to talk about any issue or decision. Verbally working through decisions can provide clarity that can’t be gleaned in a vacuum.  

5. Identify and utilize outside resources

Most high schools employ a guidance counselor whose job is to help students through the college process. Identify your child’s school counselor and encourage them to arrange a meeting with that person. Depending on your finances, you could hire an independent college counselor to oversee college apps and lend perspective. Tap your personal network, too. You could have friends or family who are alumni of a school on your child’s list. 

6. Discuss what your child wants out of college

Take a step back from planning and have a far-ranging conversation. Ask your child what they hope to gain from higher education. Do they have specific goals? What are their passions? Have they thought about the type of future they want?

7. Build a college list together

A key decision in the college admission process is where to spend the next four (or more) years. Complete the college search and craft a list together. Research different schools and explore college rankings

As you craft the list, challenge your child to think beyond the college experience and how a degree from a specific university might affect the goals you discussed. Factor in finances, but don’t let the sticker price deter you before you receive financial aid (or even after).

8. Arrange campus visits 

If your family has the means, plan college visits. You may only have the time and resources to visit a handful. In that case, help your child identify their most realistic options. 

During your campus visit, make an effort to connect with a current college student. Oftentimes, they’ll be hosting the tours. If not, ask the admissions office if they have student liaisons available to prospective students. Current students can provide invaluable insight into a specific college experience.

9. Discuss financial aid and scholarships

Many high school students don’t have a clear picture of their family’s finances. Even if they do, they might not comprehend how much it costs to obtain a college degree. Open up the floor to discuss financial aid — what it is, how to access it, and how much your family might require. Teach your child about scholarships and the qualities (most importantly: they never need to be repaid) that distinguish scholarships from financial aid. Explain the federal work-study program. If student loans could be a part of your family’s future, explore the differences between federal and private student loans. 

10. Fill out the FAFSA® together

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is the most vital step in securing financial aid. But the application can be confusing, even for parents. Errors on the FAFSA® can impact your child’s financial aid awards, so utilize Going Merry’s helpful FAFSA® Made Easier tool to complete the application without mistakes.

Get matched to scholarships

See how much money you qualify for. Personalized matches.
Click below to get started.

11. Create a financial plan 

Once you’ve completed the FAFSA® and accessed your child’s student aid report (SAR), you’ll receive your expected family contribution (EFC). Examine this number. Is it bigger or smaller than you expected? Can your family afford to allocate that much to your child’s higher education? Are you able to take on student loans? Have a candid conversation and make a plan for how you’ll afford their degree together. 

If your family isn’t in a place to financially support your child’s education or if you’re on the fence about your desire to contribute, discuss that, too. If you’ve started the process early, open a 529 plan and invest together.

12. Search for scholarships

With over 1.7 million scholarship opportunities available, sifting through them could be a full-time job. Going Merry alleviates stress by sending appropriate opportunities directly to your child’s inbox. But you can help, too. 

Browse our database of high-quality awards and flag the ones that could be right for your child. Put together a list of scholarship programs and factor these applications into your calendar of deadlines. If you’re counting on scholarships to be an important part of your child’s college fund, encourage your child to spend time searching for awards, too.

13. Remind them of key dates 

Along the way, your child will need to remember a variety of dates – deadlines, tests, etc. It never hurts to remind them of an important date to ensure they’re taking steps to prepare. 

14. Proofread applications and essays

Essays are an important part of a student’s college or scholarship application. It’s what gives an application personality and specificity. Lend your perspective and proofreading ability to take your child’s essay to the next level. Ask permission to read their essays. If they’re struggling to write on a topic, offer to help brainstorm or provide example essays to get the creative juices flowing. Before they submit, go through each application to catch any errors or typos.

15. Form a support system

For a high school senior, getting acceptance to a university can feel like a life-or-death matter. As your child experiences the joys and pitfalls of the college admissions process (and there will be both), support them. Encourage them through the disappointments. Celebrate them in the moments of triumph.  

17. Decipher financial aid offers together

Once your child is accepted by a school, you’ll receive a financial aid offer. Read each financial aid award letter together. If the amount isn’t sufficient, find a path forward. If that means organizing a financial aid appeal, offer a helping hand. 

  1.  Take out student loans – or cosign a loan – on their behalf

One type of federal student loan, the Parent PLUS loan, is designed specifically for parents borrowing on behalf of a college-bound dependent. If loans will be part of your financial picture, consider a Parent PLUS loan. If your child is exploring private student loans, research options. Most private loans require a cosigner – someone to guarantee the loan if the primary borrower can’t repay. If your finances allow, offer to cosign on your child’s behalf. 

How parents can hurt the college application process

Behaving like a helicopter parent as your child wades through the chaos of college apps is tempting. The stakes are high. Deadlines are stressful. You want your child to succeed. But resist the temptation – your child will thank you in the long run. Here are a few ways parents can hinder their child’s success in the college admissions process.  

1. Do the work for them 

As much as it might seem like a huge help to write your child’s application essays for them, it’s actually not. The college admission process is an opportunity for your child to take responsibility and showcase their unique personality. By writing essays or completing applications for them, you’re taking away a chance to build valuable life skills. Beyond that, you and your child speak and write differently. Admissions officers can tell the difference between a college application essay written by a parent and one written by a high school senior. 

2. Project your own desires onto your child

Just because you think it would be awesome to attend school in New England and study liberal arts, that doesn’t mean your child feels the same way. Don’t project your dreams onto your child, particularly during the college choice process. Allow your child to individuate and consider what’s important to their unique goals. Of course, your opinion and life experience matter, but let your child’s aspirations take center stage. 

3. Apply too much pressure

College admissions offices love to see a student with a stellar GPA, a bunch of extracurriculars, hundreds of volunteer hours, and expertly-crafted essays. But, chances are, your child is aware of this. It’s not your job to constantly remind them of the pressure or push them to take on new extracurriculars to help their application stand out. Let their guidance counselor handle the tough love. 

4. Have sky-high expectations

Most parents want the best for their child. But don’t let your expectations get too high. Getting into college is tough, even for the most impressive students. Your job is to support your child, not criticize them. Resist referring to schools as “good” or “bad.” Keep an open mind and work with your child to find the best school for them — even if it’s not at the top of the college rankings. 

5. Withhold relevant financial information

A huge part of the college application process is working alongside your child to afford their degree. If you try to hide unflattering aspects of your finances, it could limit your child’s options. Federal financial aid is dependent on your family’s financial information, so be honest about your finances. 

Get matched to scholarships with Going Merry

Parents play a vital role in many students’ college application processes. As you work together, be communicative. Find the right balance of assistance and independence. Even though it’s stressful, the college application process can be an opportunity for you and your child to grow closer while working to help them learn life skills and take the next step in their education. 

From removing the guesswork from completing the FAFSA® to curating lists of scam-free college scholarships, Going Merry is here to help make the college application and scholarship search process easier. To access thousands of high-quality scholarship programs, create a parent account and sign your child up, too. We’ll automatically match your student to scholarships they’re eligible for and guide you through the application process for each. 


Ready to find scholarships that are a match for you?