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How to Talk To Your Parents About Applying to College

College application season is in full swing! From Common App essays to what seems like a million supplements to fill in, applying to college is stressful enough without your parents looking over your shoulder. Whether your parents are pressuring you to get into an Ivy or want you to get into their alma mater, the college application process is often full of tension when parents are involved. Here are a few tips on navigating college application talks with your parents.

DO make it clear what you want.

Here’s a scenario: You’re looking at colleges 2,000 miles away on the opposite coast, but your parents expect you to attend a college half an hour away from home. This is just an argument waiting to happen.

Jamie, a senior at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, says it’s difficult to see eye-to-eye with her mother when it comes to the colleges she wants to apply to. “My mom just seems to want me to get into a college with a big name at this point, whereas I want to go to a school that I feel that I match at least almost perfectly with, which is really difficult to find,” she says.

It’s important to be honest about what you want in a college from the beginning. Be open about your priorities and your must-haves. Don’t waste your time discussing schools that don’t have an engineering program if all you want to be is an engineer. Getting your absolute basic requirements out of the way early on in the process is crucial to lay the groundwork for talking to your parents later. So before talking to your parents, make sure you figure out at least the following in your list:

  • What type of setting do you want your college to be in? Urban or rural?
  • How far away from home do you want to be?
  • What majors or programs are you most interested in?
  • What sort of social life are you looking for?

DO your research.

The most powerful negotiating tool? Research, research, research! If you and your parents are having serious disputes over certain schools, sit down with them armed with facts and numbers about specific programs. Doing this kind of in-depth work will show them that you are responsible and mature enough to make this decision as well.

“I put each of [my parents’] schools’ rivals on my list, and they’re not happy,” says Brigid Kennedy, a senior at Iron Mountain High School in Michigan. “After I sat down with them and explained why I’d picked the schools (the programs better suited me, the location is better, etc., etc.), they had both calmed down and the crisis was averted. I’m sure that this won’t be our only disagreement, but I’ve definitely realized that it’s best to be upfront and honest about what I want.”

So if you already have a few schools picked out that your parents might not be happy with, do make sure you justify your reasons for applying there. Consider the following questions to build your case:

  • Does this school offer the programs I want to study?
  • What sort of social life do students at this school enjoy?
  • Are there particular professors or departments I want to study with?
  • What are the academic requirements for admission and how do they align with my grades, etc.?
  • What aspects of this school distinguish it from others?

DON’T let your parents write your essays for you.

Parental involvement has its limits. Do not, for any reason, let your parents (or anyone else) write your essays for you! Admissions officers want to hear you and your own voice come through, which is something that isn’t possible if you have someone else write your essays for you.

That being said…


DO let them read your essays.

An extra set of eyes on a draft can’t hurt! Not only will your parents be able to proofread your essays and catch silly mistakes, they might also be able to give you a fresh perspective on an essay since you’ve read and re-written it so many times. How does it come off to a person who is reading your essay for the first time?

The benefit of having a parent read it over is that they know you. They’ll be able to tell if you don’t sound like yourself, or if you’re not pushing yourself enough. Although you should never let them write parts of your essay for you, it’s okay to consider their advice.

“I’ll let [my dad] read [my essays] because more opinions can be good for essays, and also, he has a relatively objective point of view,” Jamie says.

And while you should ultimately make your own decisions on what to write about, do listen to their suggestions during topic brainstorming. You never know what they might say—what seems like a silly idea at first might just be a source of inspiration!

“When I was trying to pick out a topic for my essay, my dad suggested I write about how I always came in last place on cross country, making it humorous and showing off my humility,” says Shira Kipnees, a junior at Franklin & Marshall College. “At first, I didn’t find that suggestion that funny when my parents were laughing so hard, but in the end, I ran with it and wrote a great essay.”

DO listen to them.

Having gone through similar college application processes as well, there’s a good chance your parents will have insightful comments that can help guide your search. While you should absolutely take ownership of your college applications, do consider their advice!

“I think it’s helpful because my dad has a more objective view,” says Nathan, a senior at Phillips Academy. “If I try to summarize all of our discussions, it basically boils down to this: I want to be comfortable, and I feel most comfortable around people like me. But my dad says that undergrad is a big step towards adulthood, and I should think about being out of my comfort zone to find people who benefit me not only by being fun, but by having contrasting ideas in varying fields.”

Having watched you grow up for 17 or 18 years, your parents might just know a thing or two about colleges, and a thing or two about you. They’ve seen you at your worst and your best, and they also know how to cheer you up! Believe it or not, parents can actually help soothe your worries and stress during the college process. Just remember they want what’s best for you as well!

 “My mom helps anchor me through the college process,” says Molly, a high school senior. “At times I feel overwhelmed comparing myself to classmates while focusing on the admission statistics for the college I’m applying to. My mom reassures me that I’m on track and that college is an individual process rather than a race.”

DO remember it’s about what you want.

Remember that at its heart, the college process should be about you and where you want to go to school. Don’t let your parents’ wishes override your own—you’re the one who will be at one of the schools you’re applying to for four years!

“My parents also kept joking how upset they were… that none of their children would be going to Cornell, where they had double legacy,” says Shira. “I believe the exact quote they said was ‘This is such a waste of a double legacy. Are you sure you don’t want to go to Cornell?’”

As Jamie puts it, your parents should understand that the college process is about finding yourself, and figuring out what you want. “No matter how stressful they make you or how strict they are, in the end, it’s the college you’ll attend. So you might as well get the truth out there before you actually pay… thousands of dollars to go there,” Jamie says.


In the end, negotiating the college application process with your parents is a matter of listening to one another. Let them give their input and listen to what they want; they just might have a point! But also speak up for yourself, and make it clear what exactly you’re thinking as well. In the end, trust your parents for good advice, but trust yourself to make your own decisions. 

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