Sound Advice for Parents in the College Search Process

Catherine McDonald Davenport '87, dean of admissions

Catherine McDonald Davenport '87, dean of admissions. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

by Catherine McDonald Davenport '87, dean of admissions

If you listen closely, you can hear it. Parents pacing around their teenagers, the continuous hum of questions can be heard for miles. It's college application season and deadlines are looming.

As a liberal-arts college dean of admissions who also happens to be the mom of one of those teenagers, I have more than a little insight on "parents in the process." I also have my college classmates from the '80s who are now on the college circuit with their kids. My professional life, personal life and social life are all colliding.

However, as the mom of three boys, I'm pretty unflappable, and a good sense of humor helps keep me that way. So I'm sharing some advice with other parents, via song titles from my college days, as to how they can most help, or hinder, their children during the search process. So, get out your iPod (or Walkman if you still have one).

1980: "Another One Bites the Dust" - Queen

Rejection is part of the process. Help your student learn to deal with rejection; do not shield them from it. When applying to selective colleges and universities, a child may not be accepted. Encourage them to seek out challenges and opportunities—not just the sure thing. Understand the disappointment, but help to build resiliency in your child.

1981: "Celebration" - Kool & the Gang

When acceptance letters arrive, do not open that envelope! This is your child's moment. Let them celebrate with you after they have had a chance to digest the news first.

1982: "I Love Rock n' Roll" - Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

Parents often insist, request or demand that their child submit examples of a talent (vocal, instrumental, theater productions, artwork, etc.) to demonstrate an ability developed from years of lessons. Speaking as a member of countless review committees, we do not always see these works because it was not a required element of the application. Often when I do listen, it is sometimes painful to hear a prospective student play a classical piece when what they really are made for is Rock n' Roll.

1983: "Africa" - Toto

Let your student's natural inclination to engage in community service be at the local level, where it can be sustained over a period of time, not just a one-time trip. If a child is fortunate enough to participate in an international service trip, it should be expected that they continue that commitment once home and that it not be a one and done. As parents, we need to help create a legacy of engagement and not a box to be checked.

1984: "Jump" - Van Halen

Jump, run, swim, hit, throw, catch, vault—these are all action words, and we need to know which one they do. If a child is interested in playing a varsity sport in college, they should understand how that process works in correlation to the admissions application process, as there may be different deadlines and timelines.

1985: "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" - Tears for Fears

Parents need to realize that not everyone is a leader. Having a named leadership position does not mean a child is more coveted by the admissions committee. Sometimes being a "member" may involve more work than being the elected or appointed leader. Help your child explain why they chose to be involved in certain activities, not how many activities or how many titled-leadership positions they have collected.

1986: "How Will I Know" - Whitney Houston

It is important to know and understand the application process at each school. What does it mean to be an Early Decision or Early Action candidate?

1987: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" - U2

If your child is not happy with their offers of admission, it is perfectly fine to reassess options. Maybe consider a gap year? Or a postgraduate year? For some parents, it may be time to talk about the transfer-application process. A child interested in transferring may not know what they want, but they do know what they don't want—and that can be equally helpful.

1988: "Don't Worry Be Happy" - Bobby McFerrin

The college selection process can be nerve-wracking for all involved—and application completion and submission can add to the stress. Parents need to check-in on tasks to be completed and remind their child about deadlines, but do not do the work for them. By guiding and reminding, you can play an active role and minimize the worry.

1989: "The Living Years" - Mike and the Mechanics

It is still not over once the applications are submitted and acceptances are delivered. Now it is time to assess the choices and options, because your child will be a member of that community not just for those four years but for a lifetime.

Originally published on

Learn More

Published November 7, 2014