Advice for Parents in the College Admissions Process

Emily McCarren with Lisa Stewart

November 3, 2016

Lisa Stewart is a dean for the Class of 2017 along with Ron Gould, and a parent from the Class of 2016. On Senior Parent night she shared her reflections on her journey with her daughter through the college admissions journey and offered her insights to current senior parents. I’m so glad that she is willing to share her thoughtful, touching and insightful remarks with a broader audience here.

Senior Parent Night

A year ago I sat in the audience during Senior Parent Night, anxiously listening to the advice my daughter’s senior deans shared. Even though I’d been working closely with teenagers, including seniors, for almost 30 years, I felt anxious about how senior year would unfold for the most important senior in my life—my own daughter. I’m glad I took to heart some of the advice I heard from experienced parents last year, because just two weeks ago, my husband and I flew our daughter across the country to a college she is extremely excited to attend and which had not been on her list a year ago. And although it was hard to say goodbye to her, it was also easier than it might have been because she was so happy to be there and so certain that it was a good “fit” for her.

One of the most profound things I heard at last year’s parent night came from one of our parent panelists from the class of 2015, who observed that the college application process for his son both hastened and supported his son’s maturation. He witnessed a correlation between pulling back from overseeing his son’s college application process to watching as his son rose to the challenge of applying himself to college.

I believe that the process of self-actualization rightfully belongs to our children. It’s not a process that can be co-opted by us, in spite of the fact that the best path forward for them has been clearly lit up in the floodlight of our own imaginations, and in spite of the fact that our children at times can appear to be so incredibly inept. It’s so easy to just tell them what to do. And we are so right! But their lives are not ours, and we serve them well when we patiently help them listen themselves in the process of becoming adults. Ron and I hear stories daily from your children about your patient love and support of them.

My daughter’s senior year reminded me in many ways of the first year of her life. She, like your children, had an internal timetable that wasn’t identical to any other baby’s. She was born early and crawled late. She walked right on time. At 6 months she was at the 5th percentile for height and the 99th percentile for weight. And while I was flossing between the folds of her chubby neck, the doctor said: this is all a part of her normal development—don’t compare her to other kids.

In high school, there is an even greater developmental disparity between kids than there is in infancy. And like crawling or walking, forging an independent life away from one’s parents is a complex cluster of developmental milestones that kids will reach at their own pace and in their own way—regardless of the fact that our educational system ushers them simultaneously through the process. It’s no wonder that some of our seniors don’t even want to think about college yet—it makes them queasy. And yet some were ready last year.

I’m going to share with you a few reminders I gave myself last year. I’m not perfect, and I didn’t follow this advice all the time or even most of the time; but when I did, it helped my daughter and it helped our family—every single time.

  • Find time each day for pure listening, with no judgment, no suggestions, no helpful questions like “Does Ms. Paer know when your first deadline is?” Some kids talk more when they’re in the car with you; some get warmed up late at night; some will do it by text or while playing a game with you; some need lots of time to think about open ended questions such as “How are you feeling about being a senior?” or “How are you and your friends feeling?” You might ask a question Monday and get an answer the following week. Don’t use your questions or conversations as opportunities to gently guide your child to the realizations or actions that you want—use listening instead as an opportunity to nourish their confidence.
  • Agree on a regular time to talk about college, perhaps once a week. Imagining your child’s bright future and how it can be achieved might be a happy pastime for you, but it usually isn’t a pastime for your son or daughter.
  • Invite them to tell you if you seem overbearing. Suggest what they should politely say to you that would help you know that you need to back off a little.
  • Emotions run high. This is normal. Reframe it for yourself as a sign that growth is occurring. Make a plan in a peaceful, happy moment about how you’ll agree to communicate with each other when things feel tense or stakes feel high.
  • Encourage them to cut back on activities they aren’t enthusiastic about (and I don’t mean Math or English) in order to make time for connecting with you, your family and their friends.
  • It’s sometimes useful when thinking about college to think about it as a year’s experience instead of 4 years or more. For some students, making a plan for how to spend next year seems less fraught with consequences and reinforces for them the idea that shifting their path, changing their course, is a natural part of growing up.
  • It’s not time to give up parenting. In fact, seniors often need more parenting than they did when they were younger. And they feel abandoned when they don’t receive it. But it’s a new kind of parenting to offer because you are still charged with keeping them safe and happy; loving them unconditionally; and supporting them as they figure out who they are, what they want or don’t want, and where they are going—all while relinquishing some of your control. It’s a dance.
  • Remember that this whole growing up-going to college-leaving home thing is about development, not character—and it is certainly not about destiny. When my daughter couldn’t crawl at 6 months, I was worried, but I didn’t conclude that she was lazy or lose sleep thinking she’d never be able to get into kindergarten (ok, that might have crossed my mind once or twice).
  • Finally, a sense of humor goes a long way. This summer my daughter at last felt she was ready to learn to drive. I plastered the car with bumper sticker magnets that said “Please Be Patient: Student Driver.” Everyone on the road treated us so nicely when she wove between lanes of traffic and cruised along at 10 miles an hour and forgot about her turn signal. They didn’t honk. They didn’t cut her off. They knew—as all of us do—that she had to get behind the wheel in order to learn. One day, she asked me to sit in the back seat instead of next to her. My first thought, which I inadvertently blurted out, was “but how will I grab the steering wheel if I’m in the back seat?” She laughed and turned up the radio. “Exactly,” she said.

–Lisa Stewart


  • 11/16/2016 8:49:48 PM

    Lisa, sage advice! Enjoyed reading this article: the anecdote at the end is priceless! :-) Hope you're enjoying a blissful ride in the backseat. Please send my aloha to your amazing daughter. <3

     – Lara Cowell


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