You can slog through guidebooks and surf the Web all you want, but nothing prepares a parent for the college application process better than advice from people who've gone through it. I've survived it twice now. What I learned through research, talking to experts and personal experience will help you be part of your kid's search for a school that fits--without going nuts.
Applying to college is a marathon, not a sprint. Memorize these mantras.
- There's a school for everybody. The notion of fierce competition is a huge distraction from the fact that "Most teens end up at colleges they love," says Cheryl Paradis, Psy.D., associate professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College in New York, and coauthor of Tackling College Admissions (Rowman & Littlefield).
- Get in the zone. The way to all but guarantee a happy ending to your kid's search is to target realistic prospects, says Peter Van Buskirk, author of Winning the College Admission Game (Peterson's). "Don't discount a college just because you haven't heard of it or it looks like it's easy to get into," he says. Neither has any bearing on whether your child could thrive there. When my son Matt wanted to apply to colleges for TV production, we discovered a number of under-the-radar schools that were not only welcoming but generous with scholarship money. He's a senior at one of them now, and he can't imagine being anywhere else.
- Organization saves the day. Set up a system to track paperwork. It should include bins with hanging folders for each school, files for financial aid and supplemental materials, and a centrally located calendar for plotting deadlines.
- Silence is golden. Resist the urge to talk about college constantly. "Kids don't want to hear at 7 a.m., 'I think you should take another look at Syracuse,'" says Louise Morgenstern, a mom of three from Santa Monica, California. Martha Merrill, dean of admissions and financial aid at Connecticut College in New London, suggests designating one day per week when you can ask questions or voice concerns, then keeping quiet the rest of the time. Just be sure to emphasize to your teen that he can pipe up anytime.
- "We" aren't applying to college. This is your kid's journey, not yours. "Definitely allow her to keep ownership over the process," says Carol J. DelPropost, assistant vice president of admission and financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan in Delaware, Ohio. She told her two daughters, "I'm here if you need me" and gladly set up campus visits and tests when asked. Beyond that, she purposely-and wisely-held back.