Oberlin Blogs

Application Season - A Post for Parents & Guardians

November 8, 2022

Ben Jones ’96

Here's a post especially for our parent and guardian readers (although applicants might enjoy it too!).

Having been through the Great College Quest once already with Son #1, and now again this year with Son #2, I thought I'd share some of what our family has learned along the way about how to survive -- and perhaps even enjoy? -- the journey together. This post will focus on the application process, given the time of year, but stay tuned for additional parts of this series as we embark on future chapters of the adventure.

Navigating the application process is a partnership between you and your student, and communication is critical for any successful partnership. Without communication, there will be a tendency for one or both of you to try to control the process, which will deactivate your Wonder-Twin powers and their many benefits.

Wonder TwinsCommunication is not always easy, though, I get it. When my son gets home from a day of trying to do everything right in his classes, clubs, soccer practice, and job, the last thing he wants to do is talk with me about application deadlines or the status of his essay. He wants me to trust him to handle his business, as I generally have done throughout high school. A reasonable request.

The thing is, I do trust him. From a parent's perspective, wanting to help is just part of the gig -- the instincts to help and to trust are not mutually exclusive. This has been our job for the last 17 years, give or take. (And I'm not even talking about the extremes -- helicopter parenting or lawnmower parenting or whatever they're calling it these days.)

We parents can play it cool for awhile while the fall months pass. There's still plenty of time, it's all going to work out, the universe will unfold as it should, all that stuff. But then one night we wake up in a cold sweat, fresh from a dream in which our kid says that he's missed all of the deadlines and will now (cue the twins from The Shining) live with us forever and ever and ever and everrrrrr

Communication to the rescue. Time for a heart-to-heart conversation, at the right time, about each other's specific needs. How often do you need a check-in or status update? How many questions are too many for your student? Etc., etc. Put it all on the table. Bribe with ice cream if you need to.

My colleague Leslie gave me a great piece of advice that worked well for her and her kids: agree on a time each week to talk about college, and stick to that schedule. That way you won't be tempted to insert the topic into every conversation, and your student won't get (too) annoyed (too) often.

Regardless of what works best for you and your student, communicating everyone's needs and your subsequent agreements at the outset will make you sleep better at night, and your student will be better able to appreciate and incorporate your efforts to help.

So, what do we mean by “help”? I'll pause first to share a true story that serves as an example of the not-so-good variety. 

Several years ago at a peer institution, a counselor read an application that had some obvious flags and brought it to the Dean's attention. The Dean called the applicant's mom and said, "Ms. Smith*," we're really excited to read Johnny's* application, but he needs to fill it out himself."

The mom was aghast. "What?!? Of course he filled it out himself."

"Ms. Smith," the Dean responded, "you signed your own name at the end."

*names changed to protect the guilty

First and foremost, always remember that your student is applying to college, not you! The entire application should reflect the student's work, and only the student's work. That said, it's totally fine to help along the way, as long as you don't cross into Ms. Smith territory above. Here are a couple of examples.


Don't: write any part of it yourself, line edit, remove your student's authentic voice, etc.

Do: provide general feedback on drafts. I find that questions work well, such as "what are you really trying to say with this sentence," and "does this paragraph tell the selection committee enough about you?" Also, make your student proofread it until you are satisfied (but don't do the work for them). The "Loin King" essay from many years back still cracks us up around here.


Don't: write the list of activities and/or descriptions yourself.

Do: have a conversation with your student in which you work together to make the list. It's amazing how many significant accomplishments students don't include, either because they forget them or deem them not impressive enough. Similarly, talk through the descriptions of each activity before your student writes them to make sure they're hitting all the highlights, especially any leadership roles or awards received while participating.


Do: keep track of them and provide your student with timely reminders.

Don't: translate your deadline-related stress onto your student too early (but it's fair game if the deadline gets too close and your student hasn't done any work!).

Financial Aid

Do: everything. Sorry parents, completing the CSS profile and FAFSA is on you. :-(

Don't: stress too much. We're here to help if you need it!

I wish you and your student all the best for these coming months as you navigate Application Season. In a few short months this chapter will conclude, and we'll enter Waiting Season. I'll be back with some advice for that period soon.

In the meantime, what has worked well for your family during Application Season? Please add your own advice in the comments below.

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