Over the weekend, my kids asked me if they could watch Finding Nemo (again). My favorite character is still Crush. Everyone else is stressed, but not that dude.

My main challenge as a college counselor is that there are so many things I can't control -- the student's GPA, course selection, SAT / ACT scores, and letters of rec, to name a few. One thing I definitely do control, though, is how stressful the application process is.

Applying to college is often stressful because parents don't always know what to expect. As I was thinking about how to give parents some better info, I realized the answer was simple: just ask last year's parents. Below is a compilation of advice I received from my Class of 2015 parents.

Advice from Parent of USC Freshman

"The only tip that comes to my mind is for the students to start early in their summer of senior year. That gives them the leverage in case they need to change the essay all together. Also for the students to come up with a personal deadline for what they want to accomplish regarding different sections of the application and different schools' requirements and share that plan of action with their parents. If the students use a big calendar or white board, the visual aspect helps the student to check off as they go and parents can keep an eye on the progress. This way everyone will be on the same page and the parents do not have to constantly check in with their kids and indirectly stress them out. As far as keeping the peace at home, I truly meant it when I wrote to you that working with you made this process ever so smooth."

Advice from Parent of TCU Freshman

"I have a great tip for your future students and parents..it actually came from the National Charity League senior girls years ago. They said…do NOT go on college visits. It's a waste of time and money, especially if you don't get in. Instead, research the schools you are interested in. Apply to them. Once you get in, THEN, go look at the school.

Since we did college trips before [D] applied (we didn't have this info and didn't know better) and after [S] applied, I thought it was very good advice. [S] is going to TCU. He had seen many schools with [D] earlier, but he never made it down to Texas. After applying and getting in, we went and looked. Turns out it is the right school for him! It's a great place for [S]. I think he's going to be very happy.

I also think that there is a school for every kid. It may not be their first choice, but there is a school. Parents need to chill! Their kid will get into a college if they want to go."

Advice from Parent of USC Freshman

"My biggest word of advice is to hire a college counselor :) It really takes the stress off the student-parent relationship when some else oversees the application process. [D] sometimes called you a nag, but she meant it in a good way! She said you stayed on top of her apps and forced her to get things done. You were just what she needed, and she knew it. She was very grateful in the end.

Oh, and I liked your suggestion of a scheduled "appointment" to discuss the applications. I never realized that throwing out questions at [D] at any time of the day or night was adding more stress on her. Knowing that we would sit down and discuss things at a pre-determined day/time alleviated tension and kept things a little more sane. [D] also kept a college app. graph on Google drive that I could look at whenever I wanted to see updates. That was nice and helped to keep my questions at a minimum.

Gosh, I think I would say to start the college application process early, really early! Try to visit preferred colleges before senior year begins. And of course, the essays should be done too. Senior year is super busy. (I know [D] was busier than most, but it's the busy kids that are trying to get in the reach schools.)

The senior-year grades do count! Colleges want great 12th grade transcripts, and strong spring-semester GPA's. By the time the kids reach the end of the college search process, in December, they are burnt out! Alleviate some stress and get everything done sooner than later.

Most students did not end up where they originally thought, so encourage them to do applications far and near. So many kids thought they wanted to go far away, but ended up staying in California! I think tuition costs, travel expenses, and proximity to friends and family played a big part in those decisions.

Also, apply to reach and safety schools. Some kids underestimated themselves, and others surprisingly, had the grades and test scores, but did not get in where they expected. The acceptances and rejections did not always make sense, so cover all your bases."

Advice from Parent of Washington University in St. Louis Freshman

"[D] is really looking forward to join her peers at WashU. When we were looking to get help for [D], we were so uncertain about where to start.

1st- We did not know how much weight the standardized test has for the admission. 2nd - The effect of GPA 3rd- The school of interest vs. the school where [D] could be admitted. 4th- When is the best time to visit the school of interest. 5th- How much the parents should interfere in the decision where to apply, where to go. 6th- To apply early decision or early action. How to take advantage of it?

Our experience overall for the college application is the result is not really on based the performance of the students. A lot of other factors play the role on the acceptance.

I feel that [D] did pretty well being accepted for UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC, Cornell, and WashU. We appreciate your continuous help and support.


Final Thoughts

Here are some of these parents' observations I'd like to highlight:

  1. Start early!
  2. The results are unpredictable, even for good students.
  3. Apply to a mix of reach, target, and safety schools.
  4. Negotiate a method -- white board, spreadsheet, appointment -- to check in with your child so that you're not adding to the stress by constantly bothering her for updates.
  5. Spending $$$ visiting out-of-state schools before you apply is not a requirement. I would add, though, that if you're applying to private schools within reasonable driving distance from where you live, you'll want to spend some time on the school website figuring out whether that school considers "demonstrated interest" (campus visit, seeking out information, attending presentation at high school, etc.) in the admissions process. Some do, and some don't.

OK, that's it for now!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.