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High school seniors and their parents probably don’t need a blog to tell them that applying to college can be a stressful proposition for families. Parents may be unsure of their role as their children set out to make one of the biggest decisions they’ve ever faced. They naturally want to help their children find the best places to attend college. Sometimes, however, help becomes more overbearing, which can crank up the stress and arguments between parents and high school seniors. Here are some ways that parents can be present and helpful for college applicants, while allowing students to make their own decisions:

Facilitate college visits
Give students as many chances as possible to visit schools that interest students. There is no substitute for setting foot on campus and exploring different facets of college life. Not only will these visits help students to figure out what they want from colleges, but they can also help students feel the excitement of going to college in ways that they might not experience away from the vibrancy of college campuses. For more on parents and college tours, see this blog entry: http://galined.com/archives/college-visits-a-parents-role

Act as sounding boards
At college visits, for instance, students should take the lead in asking questions and determining what they want to see on campus. But parents can help students reflect on their reactions to colleges by having genuine discussions with their sons and daughters about what impressed them most, what patterns are emerging as students visit different schools, what students seem to be prioritizing in their feedback of college visits.

Keep records
Sometimes, students do not realize that they have continually preferred a certain type of school—let’s say a small liberal arts college—over another one—let’s say a large research university. Parents might point such an observation out to their students. Parents might also help out on college tours by jotting down notes of what students say, facts about campus, etc., so that students can refer to them later as they make their decisions about where to apply and where to attend. When the time comes for students to decide which school to attend, parents can also help students to make their decisions by listening to their kids and helping their high-school seniors notice trends in what they are seeming to want out of colleges.

Listen, don’t steer
While parents should definitely serve as sounding boards for their kids, they should be very careful to avoid re-interpreting that their children are actually saying. It is one thing to say, “you mention how much you like small colleges very often; perhaps we should look at more of them.” It is quite another to say, “I went to X university; you must go there, too.”

Be open to what your kids want from the college experience; college-bound students should have the chance to figure out what they want from a college on their own and parents should support their students in finding colleges that are most likely to help them grow intellectually and personally.

Focus on fit, not rankings and name recognition
There’s no doubt that college admissions have grown increasingly competitive these days. Often this competition can lead parents and kids alike to assume that highly-ranked colleges and name-brand universities are the only option for student success, happiness and growth in the future. However, rankings and prestige are no substitute for finding a college that genuinely meets the needs of students and caters to their strengths and interests. Parents should resist the urge to promote schools with “good rankings” over less-well-known schools that are better suited to their children’s abilities and desires.

Downplay competitiveness
Parents should also help their children avoid comparing themselves to others, whether in terms of the colleges students decide to apply to, SAT scores or financial-aid packages. College application season is stressful enough for students without burdening themselves with unnecessary comparisons and competitions.

Remember the excitement of it all!
Parents should remind students (and themselves!) of what an exciting time college can be. While there is much stress associated with applying to college, some of that tension can be reduced by refocusing the college search on the cool things that students will be able to do at college, both in general and at specific places. Neither parents nor seniors should forget that going to college will be an adventure in which students can pursue their interests, meet new people and learn to become independent young adults. Both parents and high school seniors should remember that not only will students find a college that fits them well, but also that college is a fun and exciting time in a young person’s life!