How To Navigate An Unprecedented College Application Process

Office of admissions street sign

Two experts on how parents can help out their high school seniors right now

Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg , co-authors of The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education, have some advice for parents trying to navigate the tedious college admissions process right now…

As the holiday season approaches in this bewildering year, parents of high school seniors face an additional hurdle: the looming deadlines for their children’s college applications. Even for those parents whose children are awaiting a response to an early application, most high school seniors will be moving toward completing applications to be submitted in a college or university’s main round, typically with a deadline of early January. 

In our book, The College Conversation, we present more than a dozen activities intended to encourage dialogue between a parent or other adult seeking to support a young person through the college application process. We do so by drawing on more than a half-century of combined experience, including from the vantage point of an admissions officer (Eric has been the Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania since 2008) and a longtime observer (Jacques was for many years the national education correspondent of The New York Times.)

Below, we have adapted several exercises from our new book as a checklist, of sorts, for parents over these next six weeks, so that they might serve as a resource to provide credible information to their children, as well as to instill calm and confidence at this frenetic moment in the life of a teenager and their family. As a parent you can help your child in multiple ways…

Give their college list a final review.

You might ask your child why each college is on their list in the first place. Some gut-check questions: Would your child be excited to attend if admitted, and if so why? How well do the courses offered align with your child’s academic interests? Recognizing that it may have been difficult to size up a prospective college without visiting in-person, at least recently, in this year riven by COVID-19. To what extent was your child able to assess an institution’s community and culture via online and other resources, and do they still see a fit? And what about cost: you and your child, joined by a spouse or other partner, might revisit the potential expense and affordability of each institution on their list, perhaps aided by plugging updated, basic family financial information into the “net price calculator” on each college or university website. And, finally, is that list balanced in terms of the range of the selectivity of each institution on it, by which we mean: are there at least one to two institutions that might fall into each of three categories we lay out in The College Conversation: “Likely” (schools where your child, perhaps in consultation with their college counselor, feel confident they will be admitted); “Sweet Spot” (schools where your child stands a good chance of admission, though it is by no means a lock), and “Aspirational” (schools that are a reach for anyone, by virtue of their receiving so many more applications than there are available spots in the first-year class). 

Print out each application.

Do one final proofread! A spelling or grammatical error, or an omitted word, that your child might glance over on a screen, may reveal itself on the printed page. 

Give their essays a series of final reads.

Each of them should serve a different objective. In one read-through, your child should ensure that they have provided critical insight into who they are, including their ideas and interests, as well as their values and aspirations. In a second review, they might confirm that they have availed themselves of opportunities to make the case for why they consider the college to which they are applying to be in alignment with those very attributes. On a more basic level, they should re-read their essays to make sure they have varied their choices of words and have not been repetitive. They might also confirm, ideally by reading aloud, that no sentence is too long, and that the reader has a chance quite literally to take a breath. With a final read, they can focus on whether their main ideas are conveyed clearly and compellingly. This is not a time to second-guess the topic or approach.

Make sure any standardized test scores have been self-reported in the application or sent directly from the testing agencies.

This, of course, is dependent on the college or university’s testing policies, which, in many instances, this fall, have been made optional in an acknowledgment of the challenges of taking the ACT or SAT in person. If you’re applying to a school that’s “test-optional,” here’s our advice: Your child might have a look at the test score ranges of admitted students from previous years at the colleges or universities on their list; if your child’s scores fall roughly in the top quarter, they might strongly consider submitting them. That said, when a school says that tests are optional, you and your child should take them at their word.

Confirm that recommendations, transcripts, and other supporting materials from their high school have been requested by your child.

But of course, bear in mind that at this time in the school calendar their counselor and teachers are likely under enormous pressure. Rest assured that the actual submission can take place much closer to the application deadline. Separately, and when applicable, your child might be sure that any art, music or other portfolios or supplemental materials are ready for upload.

Avoid waiting until the last minute to submit.

Application deadlines vary, and your child should be careful to confirm them. If, for example, the deadline for submission at a particular institution is January 1, 2021, which is a Friday, our strong advice is that they consider giving themselves a soft deadline no later than December 30, which can provide them a 48-hour buffer of sorts if any technical glitches arise as well as enable them to steer clear of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, when admissions offices will certainly be closed and college counselors are unlikely to be available for last-minute questions.

As parents support their children through these final steps in the last weeks of the college application process, we also hope that each will make space for a few moments of reflection and perspective. Regardless of the eventual outcome, we recommend you take time to consider all the ground that you have covered together, not just in recent weeks and recent months but in recent years. There is, mercifully, no checklist or deadline for experiencing (and, hopefully, enjoying) that well-earned moment.

Adapted from The College Conversation by Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg, published in September 2020 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg.

Eric J. Furda is the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the former executive director of admissions at Columbia University. Jacques Steinberg is the New York Times bestselling author of The Gatekeepers and You Are an Ironman, and is a former New York Times education journalist. He has served as a senior executive at Say Yes to Education and on the board of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.