Parenting your way through college admissions

Parents must learn to strike a balance between helping their teens get into college and doing it for them.

If we’ve learned anything from the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, it’s that parents’ attempts to ensure their children’s success can have precisely the opposite effect. Who can doubt that the real losers in this sordid affair are the teens whose parents went to great lengths to hand them an unearned place in a prestigious university? These children of privilege are heading for trouble as they confront adulthood feeling that their actual attributes and achievements aren’t good enough and that they are incapable of finding their own way. 

The illegal acts of these wealthy families are extreme but not different in intent from the practices of  “lawnmower” or “snowplow” parents — those who seek to clear every impediment to a child’s success. They are depriving their children of the opportunity to develop confidence in their own abilities and achieve their goals. 

At every stage of a child’s development, frustration and failure are inevitable. There are bicycles that can’t be ridden, equations that can’t be solved, prizes that can’t be won. Learning to deal constructively with frustration and failure helps children learn to overcome obstacles and tolerate disappointment. Denied the freedom to stumble, a child will not develop a sense of mastery and self-sufficiency and will be overwhelmed when expected to make decisions about college or anything else.

Yes, the college application process is more challenging than tying shoelaces. It is stressful for all concerned and parents must help their youngsters avoid being consumed by anxiety. But they must resist the urge to take over. How do you find the right balance between being supportive and running the show? You wouldn’t dictate which school(s) your son should apply to. But when he’s undecided after being accepted at several, how can you help? And while you wouldn’t write the college essay for your daughter, is it OK to proofread it? What’s a parent to do? 

There are many useful things for a parent to do in the application process — listen, ask questions, guide, remind, suggest, encourage, support. The most important consideration is to understand what your youngster wants and needs from you. Start by asking. Then keep asking and adjust as needed. Your child may not know everything she wants in life but she has dreams and aspirations, and having a conversation about them and about how she wants you involved in this process is a good place to start.

There are many guides available in print and online about the steps in the admissions process. As a psychotherapist with a particular interest in parenting strategies, I can best advise on some of the psychological issues in play. Here are some key thoughts:

• Fit is what matters. That means the right school for your child is not the one you went to or had hoped to go to. It’s not the “hot” school among his classmates. And it’s not the one that will confer bragging rights. As he does his homework investigating schools and as you visit campuses, he’ll begin to develop a sense of fit, of where he feels comfortable, and he’ll find there are a number of schools that feel right. 

• Keep lines of communication open. Make sure you have a plan for how you’ll work through the process and that it includes touching base regularly. That doesn’t mean bugging your teen every night at dinner about how the essay is coming or offering unsolicited advice. But she should feel comfortable coming to you at any time with questions, concerns or just to chat.  

• Manage your anxiety. Of course, you’re anxious. Your teen is anxious, too, and her ability to handle anxiety is a more important predictor of her future success than her SAT score. Keep in mind that anxiety is contagious, never more easily transmitted than from parent to child. The better able you are to manage your anxiety, the better your daughter will be able to manage hers.

• Stay true to your values. Does your family value cooperation over individual achievement? Financial stability over risk-taking? Challenge over conformity? Under stress, it’s easy to lose sight of the values you hold dear. Faced with an important decision about your teen’s future, talk to him about values and let them guide you.   

Applying to college may be the first time your child is called on to make important decisions about his future and — ready or not — he will make those decisions. Yes, you should help assess each school’s pros and cons before your teen makes a final decision. And by all means, offer to proofread the essay. Then take a deep breath and remember that research has shown that where your child goes to college will have little to no effect on his eventual success or happiness. 

Psychotherapist Dana Dorfman treats patients with a wide variety of mental health-related issues to do with parenting, relationships, anxiety, depression, ADHD and other learning challenges. Dorfman is a cohost of a podcast and is in private practice in New York City. For more visit

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