Advice to Parents and Students in the College Process

by Dr. Gay S. Pepper, College and More, Inc.

Individual Roles

Student: You are at the center of this process and should be the one in control. You are choosing a college which is best suited to your abilities and interests. You are also picking your home for the next four years. You are the one who should do the research on each of your colleges and make sure that you ask the questions that are most important to you. You should make an effort to visit your top colleges choices. You should also understand how to evaluate the costs and financial aid packages offered by different colleges if you plan to apply for aid. In the end, you are the one who should make the final decision about where you go to college.

Parents: It is important that you understand the dynamics of the college process and what your role should be at each stage of the process, early on in the selection of courses and later in the junior year in terms of planning the college visits and understanding what is required in applying for financial aid, if applicable. Be supportive but not controlling. You can be a great help in dealing with the logistics of the campus visits. Be prepared to ask questions in the Information Session run by the admissions office. Take the tour. Listen to your child’s reactions. Try not to impose your own opinions, which you may later wish to share with your college counselor. Let your child handle the application process and do not, under any circumstances, write the personal essay. Admissions professionals know the difference between the voice of an 18 year old and a parent. Remember, the essay is the best avenue for your child to express his or her “voice”.

Independent College Counselor: The primary role of the independent college counselor is to provide knowledge, guidance, and support for families at each stage of the college process. The counselor provides a “roadmap” of what needs to be done, from early on in planning the courses for high school, to the building of the college list in the junior year. The counselor also helps plan college visits, prepare students for interviews, offers advice on what to do on campus, and suggest dates for the standardized testing. The counselor also oversees the completion of the college applications and can serve as a sounding board for the student on the final college choice.

Advice for Students

1. Be true to yourself as the unique person you are. Research your colleges so that you know if the strengths of the college match yours. Avoid going by the rankings, which oversimplify and often mislead. They do not tell you are the quality of teaching or the sense of community at a college, which are important factors to evaluate. Make the effort to visit your top colleges so that you can get a “feel” of the college. Talk to students; sit in on a class; talk to professors and coaches. As a senior, you may want to spend the night in a dorm to experience college life outside of the classroom. All of this will help you get a pulse of campus life and the ambivalence.

2. Once you have identified the attributes and programs you want in a college, build a realistic college list in which your “reach” colleges and balanced by your ”back-up” colleges. Your counselor can help with this analysis. Do not think there is only one college that is best for you; try to have eight first choices, any of which you would be glad to attend.

3. Be open-minded as you begin your search. Remember that with over 3,000 colleges and universities in this country alone, you will be surprised at the number of fine colleges that are great matches for you. Look outside of your geographical region; geographical diversity can be a plus in terms of improving your chances of admission.

4. Going through the college process takes time. You need to understand what needs to be done at each stage, particularly during the junior and senior years. Colleges are going to pay greatest attention to the transcript: the rigor of your courses and how you have performed. They will also look for evidence of leadership, character, extracurricular accomplishments, community service etc. Some of the clues will become evident in your personal essays. They also want to know your level of demonstrated interest in what they have to offer which is why they will want to know if you have visited the college; how specific you were is writing the supplement about why you want to attend that college etc. So take time to prepare the very best application possible; it will pay off.

Advice for Parents

1. Try to make the college process something that builds self-esteem in your child. Remember that in a matter of months, your child will be leaving home. The goal is to make this a smooth transition so that your son or daughter feels empowered as a college student, able to make good decisions and function responsibly as an independent person.

2. Understand the college process and what your role is at each stage. Sometimes it is better to step back and listen. You may want to update your knowledge of certain colleges which may have changed radically from what they were when you applied to college. In other instances, you may need to play a more active role in terms of planning college trips, researching financial aid policies and merit scholarships. If you have specific concerns about colleges, talk to your college counselor.

3. It is important to recognize boundaries in this process. As much as you may have a preconceived idea about where you want your child to go to college, there are simply no guarantees when it comes to admissions, particularly at the most selective colleges. Remember, the key is making the best match, not going after the “designer labels”. 

Learn More

1. Myth: It is better to do as many activities as possible in high school. Reality: depth and level of accomplished are more important than spreading yourself too thin. Build on real strengths and show dedication to those activities or courses.

2. Myth: Rejection from a college is a rejection of you as a person. Reality: many top colleges are overwhelmed with highly qualified candidates and can only accept fewer than 15% of these students. How they pick has much more to do with the internal needs of the college which may be making a special effort to attract more underserved minorities or recruited athletes. You may not fit these categories but that is not a rejection of you as a person. Keep in mind, there will many colleges who will go out of their way to recruit you. So make sure you have a realistic and balanced college list.

3. Myth: College rankings measure the quality of the college. Reality: college rankings quantify aspects of the college that can be measured in numbers. They do not deal with the quality of teaching, the sense of community, school spirit among the students, or the quality of the learning environment. Rankings are done for profit and often the numbers are manipulated giving an inaccurate reading.

4. Myth: Good parenting is “product development”. Micromanaging a child’s involvement in multiple activities makes the child more successful. Reality: good parenting means spending quality time with the child. It means setting boundaries and respecting the child’s developmental issues. Sometimes, it means setting limits to how much a child undertakes so that there is a healthy balance.

5. Myth: Good grades and test scores will assure acceptances at top colleges. Reality: the majority of students applying to top colleges have top grades and test scores. To help make admissions decisions, colleges also look at evidence of personal growth and what kind of impact you have had on your school and community. Character, leadership, and values do count. In terms of academics, colleges look for evidence of intellectual vitality, willingness to take intellectual risks, evidence of independent thinking, published research, summer internships etc. Admissions professionals also look for that “spark” that reflects passion, originality, dedication and authenticity. 

Good Websites for Parents of College Bound Students

Dr. Gay Stebbins Pepper, Founder and Director

Winter Office (December 1-April 30)

7032 Pelican Bay Blvd. #104

Naples, Florida 34108


Summer Office (May 1-November 30)

2301 East Avenue

Rochester, New York 14610


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