The Role of Parents/Caregivers in College Admission

My daughter’s birthday party was last Friday. Long story short, it involved a frenzied and surprisingly competitive neighborhood- wide scavenger hunt, copious amounts of half- eaten pizza slices, a sugar fueled late-night living room dance party, and periodic tween screaming that hit notes any soprano would commend. Good times were had and only one slight injury occurred. I mainly just supplied food, cleaned up, and sought refuge when the music started.

Somewhere amidst the generally controlled chaos, Elizabeth opened presents from her friends, which I discovered based on the strewn pieces of wrapping paper and gift receipts I found in corners of the living room the next day. “So, what did you get?” She rattled off a few of the gifts and proudly displayed her new “cozy Christmas socks,” which she’d apparently slept in.

“But you know what I’m most excited about, right?!” she asked breaking into a grin.

Yep! When are y’all going?

“TODAY! I can’t wait!” eyes brightening, smile widening.

Me: What are you going to get?

“I HAVE NO IDEA!” a smile seeming to reach full capacity.

Why are you yelling?

Same response. Same exuberance.

Each year after Christmas, my aunt has a tradition of taking Elizabeth out for lunch and shopping for something she wanted but did not get, or later realized she was interested in. This year my mom decided a similar experience would be the best birthday gift she could give.

These two are like peas in a pod. Despite a 60-year age difference, they have a ton in common. They just get each other. “Get each other” as in Elizabeth regularly says, “I want to go live with Oma.” It’s sweet on most days, moderately offensive on others, and tempting to look into occasionally.

What Elizabeth loves about these shopping trips is that she gets to choose the music they play in the car, select the restaurant they go to for lunch, where to shop, and what item she ultimately wants. In the end, neither the meal nor the gift end up being extravagant- Moe’s and a sweatshirt to give you a recent example. But it’s the freedom. The choices. And the time together. She LOVES it!

Shopping!!

When Oma showed up, her first question was, “So, where do you want to go?” She was open and excited about their time together. On that particular day, Elizabeth knew exactly where she wanted to go to lunch, and she had a few stores in mind to check out, but generally she was just looking for “jeans.”

Jeans. Especially right now this is a broad category- “Mom” jeans, skinny jeans, tailored fit, athletic fit, I’m sure Google and Instagram would provide another five categories easily. And then you have length, color, material, buttons, zippers, rips, location of rips, size of rips, and that’s before you talk about cost, brand, etc. Ultimately, they went to two or three stores and Elizabeth scanned the racks, tried on a variety of jeans, and weighed her options. Ultimately, she was torn between a few options and wanted my mom’s opinion to make help her final decision.

I’ll admit I find it moderately disturbing that as they were relaying their day to me the first thing I thought about was this blog, which is clearly a me problem. But it is true. Over the years, on panels or webinars, I’ve heard countless responses from colleagues to the question, “What is the role of parents in the college admission experience?” Inevitably, you’ll hear analogies about driver and passenger or pilot and co-pilot. But the longer I do this work, and the older my own kids get, the more convinced I am that the role of a parent/caregiver is a lot like my mom’s trip to lunch and shopping with my daughter for her birthday. And it all centers around choices and options.

Openness, Excitement, and Curiosity

My daughter knew my mom was excited about the adventure of driving around, seeing what they might discover, giving her opinion but honoring Elizabeth’s unique style and interests, and asking questions so they could ultimately find the jeans that “fit” her best. As a parent, especially while your student is in the sophomore and junior year, my hope is you will commit to a similar posture. Vigilantly ask questions, consistently observe, and really listen to what they are saying they want/need. Help them research and learn about the many schools where they could thrive and be open to visiting a wide variety of campuses. Let go of any stereotypes or dated reputations you may be holding onto. You know them best as a person and a learner, so trust your gut rather than rankings or the opinions of others when it comes to creating a list of schools to visit or apply to.

Don’t miss the final part of the story. Ultimately, Elizabeth wanted my mom’s opinion because she had been given the freedom to choose. As parents, of course we want to be consulted and weigh in. But the ability to provide that final input starts by holding back and in the beginning.

Your Presence is the Gift

Does that section heading sound a little cheesy? In this season of gift giving, hope, and thankfulness, I’m good with that because it is true. As I’ve said directly and have proven through my errant predictions on this blog over the years, there are many things I don’t know or understand. But what two decades of working in education and having two kids of my own has taught me is that parents and caregivers love their kids. We want to provide for them and see them happy. Often, we convince ourselves that revolves around a particular outcome, i.e., something they need to get/do/be, so we attempt to control the outcome or steer things in a particular direction.

On the shopping trip, in contrast, the adventure together was as much of the gift as the jeans they ultimately purchased. When Elizabeth and my mom came home that day, they were giddy—laughing, talking about what they had done and seen, and as excited about their time as they were about the purchase.

All metaphors break down eventually, and while I thought this one was pretty good, I also acknowledge that college admission can be stressful or tense because it combines money, deadlines, periods of uncertainty, and the inevitable beginning of a new chapter for everyone. But it also provides families an opportunity to grow closer through the shared experience.

Lots of admission decisions have recently come out, or soon will be in the weeks and months ahead. If your student is deferred, denied, or waitlisted, you are not going to have all the answers or be able to guarantee how everything will resolve. But you do have an opportunity to remind them that you love them, you are proud of them, you are for them, and you are there for them. Your presence is the gift. In the end, how they end up going to college, and the way you build your relationship with them this year, is far more important than where they ultimately go to school.

The Role of Parents/Caregivers in College Admission

As a parent, the good news is you have been down this road before. So many of the decisions and sacrifices you have made over time have been to set your child up for having short- and long-term choices and options. The truth is that this is just one more chapter in that relationship story. Stay open, curious, excited, and most importantly- simply present.

So, the next time I’m on a panel or webinar and the question about the role of a parent/caregiver comes up, be assured I’m refencing this blog series. I am convinced that what colleges want, the blueprint for students, and the ultimate focus of parents is the same—Choices and Options.

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Assistant Vice Provost and Executive Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. He has served on a number of national advisory and governing boards at the state, regional, and national level. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and a companion workbook published under the same title. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college