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Hovering Parents Don't Do Kids a Favor in the College Search

It's the time of year when high school juniors gear up for their college search. Or, at least their parents do.

I heard a high school counselor remind parents not to show up for a counseling session to map out the senior year schedule and college application plan without their child—it has happened. I thought that was a crazy example until I read about a helicopter parent scheduling an interview with a college admissions counselor—without the student.

With SAT/ACT testing in full force and the Spring Break campus visits around the corner, this is the season many families begin in earnest the process of searching for the perfect college.

This generation of playdate-arranging, safety-obsessed, achievement-oriented parents often has a hard time letting the child take the lead in the college process.

But, the experts say, we must.

"Parents' primary responsibility is to set the parameters—financial, geographical, and philosophical. Once that is set, hopefully they will move out of the way and let the student lead," says Nancy Beane, a college counselor at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta and board member for the National Association of College Admission Counseling. "If parents hover and hover, it can be a formula for disaster. The child doesn't know what to do when they get to college."

Phyllis Gill, associate director of college guidance at Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C., cringes when parents come into her office and say: " 'We are applying to....' I say: 'No it's the student who is applying.' ... It's a student-centered process. Students need to be in charge of it."

The college process should be one of self-discovery in which the student finds the right fit. "It's not what bumper sticker goes on the car," says Gill, who is also a board member for the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

It can be an anxious time, especially if students don't know how to take charge. Counselors can help guide families and provide information, says Gill.

Parents need to recognize that students will procrastinate, and they shouldn't jump in and do it for them. It's the student's job to figure out a way to keep track of the deadlines.

"Tell the student: 'If you miss a deadline, I'm not going to rescue you,' " suggests Gill. "It's really hard for parents to do that." Have the students pay fees for registering late so they begin to learn the consequences.

Remember, the goal is to raise a child who can live independently and contribute to society. Soon, they will be on their own, so begin the transition process now, she says.

To keep the college process from overwhelming your household, Beane suggests setting aside 15 minutes each week to talk about the college and try to avoid it otherwise. The college search is a big part of a high school student's life, but you need to find a balance.

If your student doesn't know where to start, check out the Fiske Guide to Colleges, Colleges that Change Lives, National Survey of Student Engagement or College Confidential to get a sense of the options.

"If you're a high school junior, you probably already have a fairly decent idea about which schools you're targeting. However, keep in mind that there are a lot of schools in the sea of possibilities," says Dave Berry, co-founder of College Confidential. "While your parents are an important part of your college process, be proactive about looking for your best matches among all those choices."

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