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A Parent's Guide to College Applications

With so much at stake when college applications are due, it's not surprising that students often feel overwhelmed. Faced with increasing pressure on their college-bound student and a mountain of paperwork for themselves, it can be hard for parents to know their role in the application process.

Keep in mind that it's your child who's applying for college -- not you. It might also help to remember that many of the rules have changed since you faced college applications, so be sure to read any instructions carefully if you are involved in helping with applications.

Your exact role in the application process will depend a lot on your student and their plans. Often, parents are asked to provide information for financial aid forms. You might also find yourself offering moral support and assisting with application organization -- there's a lot to keep track of when a student is applying for college! To help your child ensure all the bases have been covered, here's an overview of the college application process.

Admissions Policies

In general, schools will look at the following factors: high school courses, grade point average (GPA), class ranking, test scores (SAT/ACT), personal essays, extracurricular activities, other personal or special skills, and letters of recommendation. Sometimes a school will conduct an entrance interview.

Having said that, every college is going to weigh these factors differently and some schools may not require all of them. Your best bet is to read the college material and try to get a feel for a particular school's philosophy. It might be explicitly stated in the college's application calendar, but if you want clarification, look at last year's freshman records or discuss it with an admissions counselor.

Getting Organized

The first step is to gather the information required for the application. Entrance requirements can differ for every college, so pay close attention to the application forms to make sure your student has everything they need. The earlier they know the requirements of each school, the better.

They might want to start by printing off a copy of each application form which they will fill in as a draft. They can also create a file folder for each school to store copies of all materials sent to that school. They should put the date on everything so you'll both know when each application was mailed out.

Jot down all the admissions deadlines on a calendar or in a date book -- and check it often. You may want to record the deadline dates on the outside of each folder as well.

Application Form

Applications should be proofread carefully by someone other than the person who filled them out in order to double-check spelling, grammar, the name of the school and any numbers the student had to enter. Sloppiness or inaccuracies make for a bad first impression, and a second set of eyes -- maybe yours -- can help avoid unnecessary errors. Catch the errors in the practice copy, so the real application can be filled in neatly.


Transcripts should be requested from high schools early, at least a few weeks before the college needs the transcript.

Most of the time, transcripts will be sent directly to the college, so your student won't have to worry about sending it themselves unless they're directed to do so. Make sure they know what the school prefers.


Some colleges don't need letters of recommendation. Some only require the letters for scholarship applications.

Check how many your student will need and who they should be from. (For example, are they looking for any teacher or a particular subject teacher?) Once the student knows exactly what they need, make a list of possible names. The best references will know your child well -- as a student and as a person -- and will be willing to write a unique and positive assessment of their abilities and attributes.

Students should approach potential references early in their senior year, to allow lots of time for a thoughtful letter to be composed. Therefore, they'll want to tackle this now if they haven't already.

Finally, the letters of recommendation should be enclosed in sealed envelopes with the application materials, or sent directly to the college by the letter writer if that's what the school wants.

The Essay

Not all colleges require an essay. But if they do ask for one, consider it a blessing. Think of it this way: an essay offers a chance for the real student to shine through to the admissions board.

Contrary to popular belief, schools aren't looking for studying machines -- they're looking for bright, well-rounded people. The best essays are often personal, revealing the person behind the application.

Once again, it's important to proofread. If you feel confident in your proofreading, help your child read through for things like redundancies (repeating the same words or ideas), sentence fragments and incorrect punctuation.

The Interview

Not many undergraduate programs require an interview, except some selective programs such as engineering or nursing. For private, independent colleges, however, interviews are often necessary. If your child is facing an interview, you might want to help them rehearse before the big day.

Submitting the Applications

Be sure your child prints copies of all applications to keep for their own records. They may also want to update the colleges concerning any subsequent important events. For example, if they take the SAT or ACT again and do better, or receive any awards, send the new information along.