By Patrick O’Connor, Ph.D.
One group is more anxious about this year's college admissions decisions than the parents of this year's seniors -- and that's the parents of next year's seniors. Junior parents love their children, and they would welcome any advice colleges could offer that would give their child's application an inside edge.
To support that effort, here's what a college admissions officer told me when I asked for advice I could give to junior parents:
"Let your child drive the bus."
The explanation she offered for this counsel, combined with long-standing conventional wisdom, gets to the heart of the college application process, and shows what admissions officers are looking for in a successful applicant beyond the numbers:
Initiative From start to finish, a college application has to send the message that applying to this school was the student's idea, and the student is excited enough to do something to bring that idea to life. This is why so many colleges want students to visit campus or meet the admissions representative at a local college fair; it shows the student is serious about their application. That seriousness is questioned when the application is completed in what is clearly the handwriting of an adult, or when parents call the admissions office to ask questions. This is particularly true if the parent starts the call by saying "We're applying to your college next year." If the student wants to start building a meaningful relationship with the college, they make the calls, and speak in first person.
Synthesis Well-meaning parents insist they only help their child complete a college application because it is too complicated. Colleges certainly don't want the process to discourage students; at the same time, applicants show they possess the traits needed to be successful students at selective colleges by demonstrating the flexibility, organization and persistence needed to create an application crafted exclusively by the student. That's why it's best for students to schedule an hour or two each weekend in the fall to focus on college applications -- it gives them the best chance to create an application that is rich with their voice, and their voice alone.
Originality Everyone has a unique view of the world, and a good college application gives the admissions office a glimpse into a student's ability to share their particular vantage point. Colleges understand that view may not be fully developed at age 17 -- in fact, most hope it isn't -- but they also understand that unique view should be consistent across all parts of the application. A 20-minute weekly college meeting between parents and applicant gives the student the right mix of structure and encouragement to shape their own answers, and assure their ownership of the application process.
Authenticity Students have different reasons for attending college, but each reason has a common purpose -- students want to get something out of the experience. A strong college application shows the admissions office what that purpose is, and taking the time to wrestle with each part of a college application not only gives the application more clarity and confidence; it also gives the applicant more clarity and confidence.
It may be hard for parents to watch students struggle at first with this important task, just as it wasn't easy to watch them strike out at the plate, listen to their first violin solo, or feel them let the clutch out too soon. Great hitters and virtuosos are made with time, effort, and the opportunity to get better, and so are good drivers. The best way to help them reach their college destination is to give them the keys.
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