Broadly speaking, the role of parents in the college application process is strictly financial. Students pick; parents pay. Sounds harsh? We are reminded of the college admissions rep who quipped privately that "Mrs. Jones must really want to go to school here. She calls every day with another 'interested student' question." Here are 6 things you shouldn't do as a parent of a college applicant.
1. Don't be Mrs. Jones.
You may call the school if you have a question on financial aid or anything to do with costs, but that's where you should retire your dialing finger. You may not call the admissions office on your son's behalf to share your view that his unreasonable 11th grade AP Chemistry teacher gave "everybody" a B so therefore the school should understand it wasn't Junior's fault. Or that you want them to know how he narrowly missed being the captain of the football team but the coach "had it in for him."
Parents have called for myriad reasons, many of them inappropriate. Applicants themselves are welcome to call the school and ask anything they want (although they should check the school's website first to see if the answer is there). But parents need to lay off the calls unless they are about how to pay for the school.
2. Don't do the application for them.
They are on the cusp of living without you picking up their dirty socks from the floor. They need to know they can do this without you hovering. If they have a question, they can ask their guidance counselor. This is about them. Trust them. That said, the current Common App asks things like what year did both parents graduate college. So yes, you may hover a little.
3. Don't write their college essay for them either.
Be a resource, offer to look it over. Depending on your kid, you can probably be a sounding board for essay ideas. But at the end of the day, this is their essay not yours.
College admissions officers claim that they can usually tell if the essay wasn't written by the student. One way they can do that is by comparing the submitted essay with what the student wrote on the writing portion of the ACT or SAT. Technically, it's an apples to oranges comparison. The ACT/SAT writing test was taken in a timed proctored environment while the college essay has undergone multiple drafts and been shown to multiple teachers and counselors. The essays should be different, shouldn't they?
Sally Rubenstone, a senior adviser and writer for College Confidential, advises: Don't be a cheater. Obviously it is cheating when you pay to have someone else write the essay (or to edit the fledgling effort made by the student to the point it is unrecognizable). At the end of the day, role modeling that cheating isn't acceptable should triumph.
4. Don't let them apply to schools you can't afford because you think they'll feel great if they are admitted.
They won't feel so great when you break the news to them that there's no way they can go there. They will feel disappointed and more than a little angry. The glow will be rubbed off their second choice school, the one they actually can afford to attend.
Lynn O'Shaughnessy, a nationally recognized college expert, author of "The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, and blogger at The College Solution, says affordability is a conversation to have with your kids before they apply, not after they get accepted to a "dream" school and have no viable means to pay for it.
O'Shaunghnessy says everyone should run their numbers through the Expected Family Contribution calculator to learn what colleges and universities think your share of the bill should be. Apply to the schools that seem to be a reasonably good match for what your savings are.
5. Don't be naive about what financial aid really means.
Wow, says your inner-babe-in-the-woods, my daughter must be brilliant because she got 100 percent of her need met. Slow down, Proud Mama. The devil may be in the details.
In your mind, financial aid means just one thing: free money. You are envisioning grants and scholarships that the school or others give out that don't need to be repaid. But in College-speak, financial aid can mean something else: loans. Big fat loans that add up and will loom as large debt strangling your child as they struggle to launch their career, afford to start a family, buy a home, get a car, do anything else.
The time to educate yourself about what an offer of financial aid looks like is now. No two are the same. And complicating the matter is that you often need help deciphering them and time is of the essence. O'Shaughnessy believes many colleges and universities intentionally make financial aid awards hard to decipher to trick families into thinking that their institutions are being generous even when they aren’t.
"Obfuscation is an effective way to keep parents off balance," she said. A good letter will clearly set forth the full cost of attendance (COA), broken down into expenses including tuition, room and board, books, and travel. It will also specify if you are being offered a grant, scholarships or types and amounts of loans -- including the interest rates. The net amount that the student will have to pay after financial aid is deducted should be stated clearly, as should the family's expected family contribution.
6. Don't forget this isn't about you.
College acceptances are not Mommy Wars. This isn't about bragging to your friends about admissions or scholarships or how much the soccer coach wants your daughter. It is about finding the best fit for your child, the place she will feel the most comfortable and be able to thrive educationally, socially and make the connections she needs to find a job. How many of us changed our major once we got to college? And how many of us are working in careers we never even thought about?
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