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Helicopter or Hands off?

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  • September 09, 2015
Aiming for the right level of parental involvement in the college process

The tension began to build last fall for Constanza Romero and her daughter, Azula Wilson, a senior at The Northwest School in Seattle. Azula was applying early decision to her first-choice college, the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, part of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The formidable seven-part application, with its many essay requirements and music portfolio, had to be in by Nov. 1.

“I saw Azula working on her portfolio, but I wasn’t seeing the writing getting done,” says Romero. “So I gave her gentle reminders here and there.”

She suggested grammar fixes for Azula’s essays and held the camera for her video. “That became extremely frustrating; there was so much riding on that video,” she says. “It was all very nerve-wracking — and a lot of pressure for both of us.”

On top of that, Azula needed to convince her mother that NYU was a good option. “At first, she didn’t want me to be in New York. She felt I would be distracted,” says Azula. “And she wanted me to be 100 percent sure this is the career I wanted.”

To Azula, it seemed inevitable that she’d aim for a life in the arts. Her mother is a Tony-nominated costume designer and artist in residence at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Her father is the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. “I grew up coming to New York. I saw the city through a professional lens,” says Azula. “I wondered: How could my mom be surprised that I’d want a fine arts degree?”

 

Costs and competition

The college application process, always stressfilled, is a common source of generational friction. Parents stew over whether — and where — their kids will get into college, and students agonize over grades, tests and extracurricular activities. Everyone worries about assembling all the right pieces in time to meet application deadlines.

What’s more, the competition to get in can be daunting. The number of kids vying for spots at colleges and universities keeps inching up; a record 36,528 applicants applied for the University of Washington’s 2015 freshman class, an increase of 5,000 over last year. And thanks to the Common Application, students can now apply to multiple colleges (more than 500 schools honor the Common App) using a single online form. This is much simpler than when high school seniors painstakingly filled one out — and penned essays — for each and every school. By hand.

If it’s the Ivies your student covets, get ready for some lottery-like odds. This year, Princeton University received more than 27,000 applications for its 2019 class of 1,300 freshmen. That’s the largest applicant pool in the school’s history.

Families also worry about costs, which typically increase every year. The current annual tuition at the University of Washington is $12,394 for Washington residents, not including housing or books. Private colleges cost more: the University of Puget Sound carries a $43,200 price tag for 2014-15, and Whitman College in Walla Walla is $44,440.

 

Tips for parents
  • Listen to your child. Be patient with the process. What are their hopes and dreams?
  • Don’t micromanage the process.  Check in but don’t nag, nag, nag. Ask a counselor for help to get your child moving.
  • Establish college check-in/update time
  • Don’t get caught up in the frenzy of test prep, summer programs, resume builders.
  • Don’t “package” your child. Encourage their true sense of self.
Tips for students
  • Talk with your parents. What are their hopes for you? What parameters do they have for you?
  • Be patient with your parents. They want the best for you. It’s very normal to not know exactly what you want to do.
  • Show them what you are doing/learning.
  • Make sound decisions. It will lead to satisfying and successful experiences.

 

Getting too involved

It shouldn’t come as a shock that today’s parents — the ones who spent years micromanaging their kids’ play dates, science projects and soccer practices — are taking the application experience to a whole new level.

Some parents fill out their child’s college app for them, notes Bellevue-based college counselor Claire Nold-Glaser. Others demand their high-schooler apply to the school mom or dad picked out — often their own alma mater.

“There are parents who follow their kids to college,” says Joan Rynearson, a Bainbridge Island college counselor who has helped parents and students navigate college admissions for two decades. “We see students so used to this kind of over-involvement, they don’t even rebel.”

 

“It’s my child’s journey, not mine.” — Lori Langston Mercer Island

Melore Nielsen, Seattle University’s dean of admissions, cringes when she hears parents use the word “we.”

“We are looking to apply to your school,” a parent might mention at a college fair. Or, “We have a question about my student’s application.”

These kinds of inquiries leave Nielsen wondering: Who, exactly, wants to attend Seattle University? The parent or the child? “We don’t offer family housing,” says Nielsen, only half-jokingly.

 

Selecting schools

Deciding which schools to aim for can be particularly contentious, with parents and kids often on different pages.

“These days, families look at the prestige and purchase power of a degree,” says Rynearson. “They’re much more reluctant to pay the high prices for second- and third-tier colleges. They are sensitive to debt load and want a return on their investment.”

Other parents simply want a name brand. “They feel they are being graded on where their kids get in,” says Bob Dannenhold, director of Collegeology, a Seattle college counseling service. “They watch what someone else’s kid is doing, or think only certain name schools are acceptable.”

Families should consider their child’s hopes and dreams, not their own, says Nold-Glaser. “Some parents feel like their student’s college selection is a badge of honor for them. And that’s not what it’s about,” she says.

To avoid conflict, Nold-Glaser advises students to “just do it” when their parents insist they apply to a particular school. Most parents eventually come around and embrace the school that’s the best fit for their child, she says. “When parents say, ‘we are going to support them going wherever they want to go,’ I love it.”

 

Parental pride

Counselors and admissions directors are also grateful when kids write their own essays. “Parents can get too involved with the college essay,” says Dannenhold, who’s seen them insist their kids include achievements already detailed in other sections of the application. “They’re proud of their kids and want the colleges to know everything about them.”

Parents have been known to over-edit essays or — yes it’s true — actually compose them. “I tell students to read their essays out loud,” says Nold-Glaser. “If they stumble over the big words, I ask, ‘so who else has helped with this?’”

Parents who overstep essayediting boundaries should be very afraid: Colleges can tell. “The piece is a polished gem, but the tone might not match the rest of the application,” says Nielsen at Seattle University. “The expressions and word choices can sound a bit off.”

 

Sidestepping strife

Tara Powers-Housemann’s son, Hudson, a senior at Bainbridge High School, applied early action — and was accepted — to six schools. Powers-Housemann feels the process has gone well. “We took his lead and supported what he wanted to do,” she says. “We were facilitators.”

It helped to hire a private college counselor — she engaged Rynearson — and it helped to visit colleges. “Our biggest take-away from those visits? Attend classes. Hang out. Sit in the dining hall,” PowersHousemann says.

Lori Langston’s daughter, Annie, a Mercer Island High School senior, will attend the University of Denver next fall. Langston found that backing off as her daughter worked on applications helped avoid conflicts. “It’s my child’s journey, not mine,” she says.

 

Scheduled check-in times

Nold-Glaser suggests parents and kids set up regular “college check-in” times. Her own daughter, a high school senior, is in the throes of applying to college.

“I could be talking to her every day,” says Nold-Glaser. “But I have to take my own advice.” So she and her daughter meet for lunch each week and talk schools and scholarships.

“In high school, it’s all about college, college all the time. But home needs to be a safe place,” Nold-Glaser says.

She says parents should discuss finances with their kids early in the process. “Tell them, this is what we have budgeted; there’s a finite amount of money we have to work with,” she says.

 

Put it in perspective

Most of all, says Nielsen, parents should provide perspective. “They should reassure their kids that they are wonderful — and that they will find the right place.” In the end, parents are simply trying to protect their student from disappointment, she says. “They are motivated because they care,” Nielsen says.

Constanza Romero and her daughter, Azula, held hands on Dec. 15 when Azula opened her email to find she was accepted to NYU. “Now we are able to have conversations about plans and goals,” says Azula.