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Navigating the College Admissions Process

by and on September 19, 2016 5:00 AM

Navigation is the best word I can think of to describe the role of parents in helping their children through the sea of information surrounding the college admissions process. The sailing is not always smooth and the waters are often untested. At the same time, lessons in self-understanding along with new adventures are part of this experience.

The seas can be rough, but, hopefully, the trip is rewarding.

Now is the time when the parents of seniors are reminding their children to work on essays and applications, while the parents of sophomores and juniors are beginning to think about what lies ahead for their children after high school. As an educator and a consultant specializing in college admissions services, I offer parents five suggestions for helping their child navigate this special time in their lives:

■ Be informed

There are hundreds of great institutions out there: private liberal arts colleges, conservatories, private and public research universities, specialized and technical schools. Go online to individual college websites and investigate what they offer in size, majors, location, career development and faculty. Also, check out the net price calculator on every college site to roughly determine what your expected family contribution toward tuition might be.

There are plenty of informative websites, including:, which lists test-optional schools;, which offers information on honors programs;, which explains various financial aid programs;, which offers scholarship information; and, the Colleges That Change Lives site.

Among the books I often recommend are: “The Fiske Guide to Colleges,” “College Bound and Gagged: How to Help Your Kid Get into a Great College Without Losing Your Savings, Your Relationship or Your Mind,” by Nancy Berk, and “College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family,” by Steven Goodman and Andrea Leiman.

The more informed you are, the more you can help your child be realistic and positive about the college admissions process.

■ Don’t take over

Try not to be consumed by the college admissions process, or become addicted to reading comments on websites such as You are not applying to college; your child is.

Watch your choice of words. This is not “our” college search. Don’t make phone calls, set up appointments for interviews or be too demanding of admissions personnel.

At a recent visit I made to Bates College in Maine, a savvy admissions officer said at the end of his formal presentation that he would only take questions from students in the audience, not their parents. Not surprisingly, the student response was far greater when mom and dad had to keep quiet.

■ Communicate and listen and occasionally offer advice

It is important for parents to encourage good time management skills and make sure the college applicant in their family meets standardized testing and application deadlines. It is also important to talk about parameters or restrictions at the beginning of the process.

Are there geographic, religious, or financial considerations which should be discussed prior to a student researching and applying to colleges? In other words, after your son or daughter is accepted to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., is not the time to state that you will only pay for one plane ticket home a year.

Communicate honestly, listen quietly and stay awake, since we all know teenagers start talking late at night. Help your child assess what he is seeing, researching, discovering and evaluating.

■ Don’t make decisions for your child

Your child needs to determine what is the right fit or match based on personality, abilities and academic interests. Just because you had a good experience at your alma mater does not mean he will. Just because you always wanted her to go to one of the “little Ivies” or to a business college does not mean that those are the best choice for your child.

Although consultation is important, the final decision about which colleges to apply to and possibly attend needs to be the applicant’s decision. If your child makes the choice, he or she will more likely to be happy with it. As Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews writes in his book “Harvard Schmarvard,” “recognize that it is your child’s college experience that matters, not yours, even if you are paying for it!”

■ Celebrate, no matter what

Be positive, encouraging and proud of whatever the outcome may be of the college application and selection process. There is no one perfect school and most young people could be happy at several different institutions. You have all navigated well, so enjoy the outcome and look forward to sending your child off to the world of higher education with support and confidence.

Dr. Heather Ricker-Gilbert has been helping students on their college admissions journey for more than 14 years. She can be reached at: [email protected] and


This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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