How To Empower Not Be INPower of Your Child’s College Journey

Written by Debra Olshan Cooper,
President and Founder of Your Career Design lab


As a career coach and mother let me spew off all the great things I did while my daughter was going through her college journey. I am happy to share that my daughter is a junior now at Northwestern, has made tons of friends, has a boyfriend, and has had amazing experiences. It all stems from all the wonderful extracurriculars she did in high school – the clubs she started, the friendships she developed, the report she made with her teachers, the 1,000 community hours she had to get her into the college of her dreams, and now pursuing her passion in accounting with a minor in psychology. 

How many times of you heard this from your well-meaning friends? I am lying; in truth, I am a fixer, a goal-oriented, get-things-done type of woman, having owned my own public relations and marketing company in NYC and Miami. I treated my daughter and her college process like one of my clients. I was gonna get her to the top come hell or high water. But instead of getting paid to get my client recognized, I was the one that paid dearly – I lost her. 

So, why am I speaking with you today? Because over the past 4 years I have become a recovering mother, who instead of wielding her power, fixing, and being goal-oriented to achieve at all costs, I now help college-bound young adults and their mothers become empowered. I’ve coached hundreds of kids who have shared their journey with me and what they had hoped their parents would do or would have done as they go through the college process.

Here are my top 5 tips on staying calm, sane, in control of your own emotions, and allowing your child to be in the driver’s seat while you hang back and be their GPS when they need direction. Today, I will share with you, the parent of a college-bound child, how to get involved in the college process and when to back off.

What every parent of college-bound students needs to know. 

TIP 1 – Let them own the driver’s seat.

Ideally, the student should be in the driver’s seat for as much of the college process as possible, but your help and support will be needed throughout, by tread lightly, buckle up and make sure your emotions are left outside as it could be a bumpy ride. 

In addition, to the items on the timeline that are highlighted as parent responsibilities, here are a few ideas to help you identify where your help will be most beneficial and when to back off or take a break. Remember, you already went to college, you are not getting in, your child is. Be especially cognizant of the word “we” when speaking with your child or within the ear range of your child as this unconsciously takes the onus off of them.

Your child WILL get into a college. There are over 4,000 colleges. It is not about the top college so that you can brag as I did above at cocktail parties with your friends, it is about the right fit and your child’s happiness. It is important to keep that in mind as you go down this journey. In fact, it is best to stay away from social media, the social competitive milieu the conversations around what kids are going where. Take a mental health break during this time and focus only on what is important for your child. Bringing in outside noises will only enhance the stress, tension, and control that will arise and may cause you to become deregulated. Your child is already feeling deregulated, you do not need to add to it. I know we all feel like we have done so much and are almost at the finish line, but remember parenting is not a sprint it is a marathon, and going to college is just one of the markers in the race.

You know your kid better than anyone.

TIP 2 – Be involved in any part of the process that involves money.

Students are all different, both in their development and their engagement with the college process, so it is normal that some will require more parent involvement and some will need less, so the first recommendation is to adapt and adjust as needed based on your child. 

Be involved in any part of the process that involves money. Make it clear to your child which decisions will be driven by finances, and what the ground rules are for parts of the process with associated costs. This includes not only the cost of attending college and how that affects the college list, but also costs for tutoring, test prep, and testing fees, application fees, visiting colleges, travel to and from campuses once enrolled, and others.

Be your child’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is not fully developed in teens, but that is so crucial in making complex plans and decisions.

TIP 3 – Act as a sounding board and management of expectations

As you look through the items on the timeline, you will probably recognize which ones will require you to act as a sounding board or a manager.

This could include anything from encouraging them to connect with teachers and counselors and to try new activities, to helping them think out loud about their priorities as they develop their college lists, to planning travel for campus visits, to setting up spreadsheets and schedules or other structures for completing applications over time rather than at the last minute. They are likely to need your support for any high-level reflection or any process that involves careful curation whether of their own priorities or the college list itself. If you are the type of parent who will find themselves too involved especially with their emotions then hire someone who can, like a college coach that will help your child through the process without the extra baggage that comes from parental anxiety.

TIP 4 – Good Enough is Perfect

The words “Good Enough” is a mantra that all parents should adopt during this time. Not the college list, the essays, and applications, the transcript, the grades, the test scores, the activity list-none of it is a guarantee Getting into college is in part subjective. There are no hard and fast definite so don’t try and think all the criteria your child needs to guarantee him or her a spot. Colleges are looking for real students who present themselves as authentically as possible and no one was ever denied admission for a minor typo. Please RESIST the temptation to be too hands-on, especially with the essays. Admissions officers typically make a child sign that this is their own work and anyone over 40’s hands-on it will NOT help your student’s chances. Editing is OK, but writing the next great American novel is not. Remember that colleges need kids, so as long as the college list is well-balanced and fits the student, everything just has to be “good enough.”

TIP 5 – Remember, It is still the student’s journey

Do what is truly necessary to support your child, but then stand back as much as you can. At the start of the college journey, sit down with your child and ask him or her what they need from you. Hiring a college coach is extremely important at this juncture because it will keep peace in the home, give you as the mother and parent some distance from the process and be able to be the parent you want to be without getting caught up in all the minutiae coupled with the stress and tension. This can result in a disaster waiting to happen that may cause irreparable damage to the relationship. The more they are EMPOWERED in the process, the more likely they are to take ownership of the journey itself and more likely they will be invested in their success, wherever they end up.

Lastly, as a recovering goal-oriented fixer, I have learned from coaching hundreds of college-bound kids that college planning can be a joyful journey of self-discovery (check out my TA DA list on my website www.ourcareerdesignlab.com). This is your time to admire all that your child has become and will through this process of being accountable. Starting in middle 11th grade do a little of the preparation at a time. Anything you can do to support a calm, thoughtful, a little bit at a time process will increase the chances that you and your teen can appreciate the growth it can facilitate, and savor the surprising moments of joy you may discover along the way. All to say, this is your permission slip.

For more ways to support your child and yourself during this time. Check me out at www.yourcareerdesignlab.com

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