Tutor’s Tips on the Right Role for Parents in the College Admissions Process

Last month’s college admission scandal might have many parents wondering, “What should my role in my child’s college admissions process be?”  For many, it’s tough to find the balance between even legal “snowplowing” their child’s way to the top and a complete hands-off motto.  As a Libra, I’m always looking for that middle ground. As a tutor and college admissions counselor, here are my top five tips to steer your child toward success and happiness, while steering you well clear of Operation Varsity Blues-like behavior.

1. Allow and encourage your child to interact with adults.

The advice I give to the private clients I tutor is the same as that I teach to parents and students in the Study Skills course that I teach several times a year at the Center for Continuing Education.  Students, not parents, should be the first approach to their middle and high school teachers when there’s a disagreement about a grade or behavior.  While your child’s likely to feel intimidated the first time she does so, as long as she approaches the teacher with respect and curiosity about how to do better in the future, the conversation should be productive.  

The chat may not result in a grade change.  But, in the short term, it may lead to your child building stronger skills or content knowledge.  In the longer term, this talk should teach your child how to advocate for herself while interacting appropriately with those in positions of power.  If you swoop in and orchestrate or – even worse – have this talk with the teacher, you rob your child of the opportunity to grow intellectually and emotionally.

A parent and a ninth grade student role play during my March Study Skills course at LMCCE.

A parent and a ninth grade student role play during my March Study Skills course at LMCCE.

2.    Praise process over product.

It’s easy to reward your child for straight As.  But some children (or their tutors) get those straight As without much effort. Others study for hours only to bring home Bs and Cs.  Time and again, studies show that students who develop a strong work ethic and study skills in high school are much more likely to succeed in college than those who breezed through high school.  In my own work as a tutor, I see how my hard-working students thrive at college, while the brilliant but lackadaisical ones often flounder.  Praise your hard-working child – and don’t worry that her low grades will “doom” her to a second-rate college.  She will wind up exactly where she’s supposed to be.  More importantly, she’ll have the skills she needs to soar through college and beyond.


3.   Start planning for – but not obsessing about – college in ninth grade.

While some parents get an SAT tutor for their seventh grader, that’s way too early to begin such an activity.  Other parents think the college planning process begins in junior year.  But by then, they’ll find many opportunities have passed their children by.  In my talk, “College Planning for Ninth and Tenth Graders,” I advise parents and students this age that they should begin thinking – but not obsessing – about college as freshmen in high school.  Two of the best things that parents can help their children master in ninth grade are time management and study skills.  Though the rest of my tips to get this age group college-ready are too numerous to detail here, feel free to contact me if you’d like me to bring this talk to your town, library, religious or civic organization, or home.  In short, learning how to “do school” successfully while remaining happy should be your child’s top focus in ninth and tenth grades.

Photo by Vadim Foment on Unsplash

Photo by Vadim Foment on Unsplash

4.   Encourage – but don’t engineer – extracurriculars that reflect your child’s passion.

Once, a parent at one of my “College Planning” talks asked, “What if my child is in eleventh grade and has done no extracurricular activities?”  This question reflects a lost opportunity (and, likely, a significant detractor on the child’s college application).  Another mom asked me once during an interview about the college admissions process, “But what if your kid just wants to run around in the playground after school?”  

Just as we need time to unwind after work, kids need time to decompress from school. However, by ninth grade, they need to begin exploring interests outside the classroom in some organized fashion (i.e., extracurriculars might be sponsored by your church or temple, a community group, or the school).  If your teen isn’t sure which to choose, ask her to look around her community.  What needs fixing? Encourage her to team up with other kids and / or an existing organization to work on fixing that problem.  If there aren’t any, help her start one (but don’t start it for her).  Colleges are looking for kids who are “self-starters”: those who have a passion and figure out how to realize it in the real world.  As a parent, it’s your job to help your child uncover his passion, but stop short of bringing the project to fruition.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

 5.   Help your child document his achievements.

College applications will ask not just for transcripts and test scores, but also for an accounting of time spent on each extracurricular activity throughout high school.  It’s tough for a senior to remember everything that he did three years ago.  So, encourage your child to keep track of activities in real time – or at least, once per month.  Get a journal just for this purpose, noting time spent (in hours per week) and including any honors, awards, medals, or leadership positions earned.  Include newspaper clippings, if they exist.  The more you and your child can document now, the easier the Common Application process will be later on.  Plus, taking regular stock of his accomplishments may encourage your child to reflect on which activities bring him true joy, and which may need to go.


It’s discouraging, of course, to consider the ways that the college admissions process is stacked against those of us from humble means, but that doesn’t mean parents need $500,000 and a willingness to break the law to play an important support role in that process. As long as you remember that your role is one of support and that your child, not you, is the lead actor in this drama, you will have performed your parental duties superbly.

How did YOU strike the right balance during YOUR child’s college application journey? Share your comments below! Thanks for helping others coming up behind you!