Help Your Child Apply to College without Over-Helping

As the parent of a teenager, you already know that there’s a fine line between helping your kids and driving them up the wall. College application season is no different. As your teenager takes the reigns, you can still help navigate from the passenger seat when it comes to finding the right college, applying to it, and paying for it. Here’s how.

A father demonstrates something to his daughter; he is the parent of a teenager.

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Encourage your child to meet with the school counselor. It’s never too early to make an appointment with high school counselors, whose job it is to create a safe place for your child to open up about any worries, academic or otherwise. They are also likely to be the individuals behind the pen when your child needs letters of recommendation. Developing a relationship with a counselor can make that process much easier for both parties. Your child will feel comfortable asking, and the counselor will know the student well enough to write a genuine, informative letter for prospective colleges.

Help pay for college entrance exams. Most colleges will only consider applications that come with SAT or ACT test scores, and many of those will only take a second look at applications that showcase high scores from AP, IB, and SAT Subject Tests. It’s important for your child to have scores from each test, preferably high ones, but that’s easier said than done because of the associated expenses. The SAT and ACT registration fees are just under $60 each, but most students don’t receive the scores they want immediately or without any preparation. Test prep courses, guidebooks, and tutors are the best study tools for these important exams. Those costs seem expensive to high school students and parents alike. If you can chip in on the cost of an exam or a workbook, your child will much appreciate it. If not, talk to your student’s counselor, who may be able to loan your child test prep books or tell you about scholarships for test prep courses. Your child’s counselor can also help you apply for a fee waiver if your family is struggling to pay the registration cost for a certain exam.

Plan fun college visits. It’s like our friends at PEER say, “Let’s make college touring un-boring.” Instead of taking dull, depersonalized tours that seem the same at every school, encourage your son or daughter to reach out to real students and get a feel for campus life. The easiest way to do this is for you to stay behind at the hotel while your kid stays overnight with a current college student. Admissions offices are often willing to place your kid with a student who has similar academic, artistic, or athletic goals, so call the office up at least a week before your trip to make a reservation. When you do join your child on campus, set aside time to see what’s of interest not to you, but to him or her. If it’s science, check out the labs when class isn’t in session (or see if your kid can sit in on a class!). If it’s athletics, make an appointment to meet a coach and go see the gym facilities. Before you head back home, be sure to check out local businesses and activities. Go out to eat, or save some cash by visiting nearby parks.

Check with your alma mater about special tuition rates for your children. Some colleges are so excited to receive applications from the children of alumni that they offer legacy support. The University of Kentucky and Weber State University are two such schools. Both allow qualifying children of alumni to receive in-state tuition, even if they live out of state. If you went to a public school, check with your alma mater to see if it offers a similar program. Who knows! That tuition discount could be enough to pique your kid’s interest in your alma mater. If you studied at a private school (which will not offer tuition discounts for residents or anyone), your child might still receive legacy preference for admission or be invited to apply for a legacy scholarship. If you and your partner did not attend college, don’t fret! Your child could be eligible for scholarships and programs for first-generation college students.

Ask your employer about scholarships. Many businesses provide scholarship opportunities to employees and their children, and even the smallest amount can make a huge difference when you need to pay a tuition bill. Scholarships are what many refer to as “free money for college” because you will never need to pay that money back. Take advantage of any company-wide programs by talking to HR today.

If you help your child apply to college, you could be as proud as this father is of his son on graduation day.

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Help your child understand the cost of attendance. Students are often more focused on finding the right school than on preparing to pay for it. In fact, you may be the one paying for most or all of your child’s education, but it’s still important for your kid to understand how to budget for any costs he or she will incur. Sit down together to read through our section about financial aid. Then, include your child in any discussions about the FAFSA, loans, or college finances. Sugarcoating it won’t help. Be direct so that your child understands how much you'll contribute and how much he or she needs to take responsibility for.

Fill out the FAFSA together. The FAFSA application becomes available on October 1 for the following school year. Completing the application can take anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour. Consider tackling the application with your child. If he or she were to go it alone, your kid might struggle to answer questions about your salary and financial situation. On the other hand, if you were to take full responsibility for the application, your child might fail to fully understand the costs of higher education. When you’re ready, enter your information on It is free to fill out the application, so if you’re being asked for a credit card, you’re on the wrong site.

Write deadlines on the kitchen calendar. No need to remind your son or daughter about deadlines more than once or twice when you can write them down in an easy-to-see place. Hang a calendar from the fridge or next to the back door so that you and your teenager must come face-to-face with the deadline a few times a day.

Teach your child to write a résumé. Teenagers are inexperienced with résumé writing. Even if they’ve held after-school jobs, they probably didn’t submit much more than their social security numbers when they applied to scoop ice cream last summer. Some colleges, however, want to see everything listed in one place, and your child may not know how to start. If you have your résumé on hand, let your child see it to understand the basics. Otherwise, review our sample résumés together.

Help your child apply to college, but don't do anything without your child present.

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Look over your child’s applications. Read through your son or daughter’s personal essay and give your feedback. Does it accurately represent your child? Does it have any misspellings or grammatical errors? Does it answer the question? Don’t edit the paper for your child; just write comments in the margins. That’s because admissions officers need to be able to hear your child’s voice, and your child needs to do the work. After your kid has revised the essay, encourage him or her to seek a second opinion, such as a trusted friend’s or teacher’s.

Take a step back. This is your child’s first big step into the real world. You can’t push you kid out of the nest but you also can’t hold their hands. Under no circumstances should you bribe someone to help your child’s chances or nag the professionals who offer to write letters of recommendation. Let your teen understand the value of this process and take the reigns.

If you have any questions about different paths to higher education, affording college, or the admissions process, head over to our site. We’re here to help.

About Katelyn Brush

Katelyn likes learning, good health, traveling, and pizza on Fridays. Her mixed education, composed of SUNY the College at Brockport, a semester at a community college, and one abroad at the University of Oxford, helped her earn a bachelor’s degree in English. College also gave her a few lessons in Taekwondo and sleeping in a hostel dorm with total strangers. She’s a yoga teacher, author and illustrator of the children’s book, “Signing Together: A Guide to American Sign Language for Everyone.” As a Student Caffé writer, she hopes to help you through the highs and lows of college with a laugh ... or 20.

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