Best practices for supporting families, and yourself, during the college application process

08/21/2013  |  By MINDY POPP
Student Careers

Many of us associate the fall months with carving pumpkins, picking more apples than we could possibly ever eat, and coming to terms with the fact that yes, it is once again time to retire our flip flops for another season. Just as the winter boots make their entrance, so does the stress and anxiety that families and schools often sense as college application deadlines surface on the horizon. While I don’t feel that the college application process will ever be completely stress-free, there are steps that schools and families can take to make the experience easier for everyone involved.

Honesty is Always Best

Students are most likely to succeed in college when they are well prepared to manage the academic demands they will face. While most high schools offer numerous rigorous course options, encouraging students to challenge themselves is just the first step. As students are progressing through school, particularly middle and high school, we should be mindful of their academic performance, including their patterns of success and areas where improvement is needed.

Feel free to define for parents the moments when it may be most helpful for them to take a supportive role in the process, while allowing their children to sit in the driver’s seat.

School staff members who are working directly with students and parents should be honest with families when they see students struggling with a specific academic subject, study and organizational skills, time management, etc. The earlier that these concerns are addressed, the better.

Teachers should not refrain from sharing honest feedback with parents about their child’s academic performance. If a child is experiencing difficulty, it is ideal if parents and school staff can work collaboratively as soon as possible to identify solutions and implement interventions to achieve the desired outcome. Because college students are expected to assume a higher level of personal independence than they did in high school, it is essential to address a student’s areas of weakness early on so that they can thrive on their own in college and into adulthood.

On the subject of honesty, students also need to hear teachers’ candid thoughts when they consider who to approach for college letters of recommendation. First, teachers should not be afraid to limit the number of recommendations that they write each fall, as we all know that this task is being added to a plate that is already full of responsibilities. Teachers should be open about their limitations and what they expect from students whose letters they are writing.

Feel free to ask students to submit resumes or respond to surveys that you (teachers) provide as the information shared will offer valuable content for a recommendation. If you are approached to write a letter of recommendation and you do not feel that you can write a supportive one that has a positive theme, please do yourself and the student a favor by declining and suggesting that the student approach another teacher he may “know a little better.” Follow up that statement by offering other ways you would be happy to support the student in his application process, such as practicing with him for a college interview or sharing any personal contacts you have at the colleges on his application list. Although it may be hard to turn a student down, recommendation letters that are lukewarm in their level of support are not beneficial to students, and in some cases, could be detrimental depending on the content.

Building Teachers’ College Resource Toolbox

As discussed above, many teachers are involved in their students’ application processes because they have been asked to write letters of recommendation for them. There are also less labor-intensive ways that teachers can support their college-bound students. For example, teachers can work with the Guidance Office to familiarize themselves with school-based and community supported college admission and financial aid resources. Because teachers are on the “front lines” given their ongoing student contact, they are often the first people to hear about a student’s concerns.

In addition to referring students to their guidance counselors, it also can help to suggest that a student attend a local college fair or attend a financial aid seminar with his parents that will be hosted at the school. Very often, students do not engage in college application and financial aid awareness programming because they simply do not know that it exists. By just keeping our eyes and ears open, we may be able to make a recommendation to a student that opens doors to more opportunities.

Lastly, it is inevitable that the college application process will surface in classroom conversations. Teachers will feel more knowledgeable and be able to better empathize with students’ concerns if they feel informed themselves.

Keeping Lines of Communication Open

It is no surprise that the college search and application process provokes stress and anxiety for many who are involved. Sometimes parents and students reach out to their schools for support and guidance; other times they may not initiate as much contact or communication as we would like. It can be challenging to determine just how much “talk” about the college process is helpful versus overwhelming. From my observations over the years, students often feel that “college talk” saturates the cafeteria and locker rooms. As a result, students may display a hesitancy or outright refusal to discuss their own plans. We should not take any of these behaviors personally. My clients often limit talk of the “C word” as a technique to manage their own stress. We should respect the boundaries that students put in place and gently remind them that we are happy to help or talk if they wish.

When engaging parents in the college application process, keeping their comfort levels in mind is also paramount so that they feel included in the experience. Remind parents of how they can best contact guidance counselors and teachers if they have questions, and also when and how your school values parent input. Along those lines, feel free to define for parents the moments when it may be most helpful for them to take a supportive role in the process, while allowing their children to sit in the driver’s seat. Examples of ways parents can be helpful include managing a school-based college fair, greeting college admission officers when they arrive at the high school to meet with prospective students, and organizing college resource materials in the Guidance Office, such as scholarship information and college admission brochures.

All of us are deeply invested in the college application process for our students, and when we support them in the right ways, the process is most likely to yield optimal results.

Mindy Popp is the managing director and principal consultant at Popp and Associates. For more information visit
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