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The College Admission Copilot

Amy Romm Lockard

College admission tends to bring out the best and the worst in us.

We may approach it with inspiration, helping our students reflect with a sense of wonder and pride on their high school journey and what lies ahead. Or we may lead with fear and doubt, equating a college’s selectivity with the success and fulfillment of our students and wondering whether our students will be “good enough” in the eyes of an admissions committee.

What I want to tell you is that it’s all human. There is no one, right way to initially respond to college admission.

You, as parents, have been bombarded with messaging (accurate or not) about what college means and how hard it is to get into a great school. At this point, I’d be shocked if you hadn’t felt any of the fear or doubt that is increasingly associated with this experience.

Whether they admit it or not, your teens look to you as key figureheads in their lives. They listen carefully to the words you speak to them, and observe and dissect your reactions to what they share and how they act. If you approach college admission from a place of fear and doubt, the message you may inadvertently send to your student is one of fear and doubt — fear they will not get into the colleges that can ensure their success and doubt in their abilities, competency and value.

I’m here to tell you there's a better way. And while your students are at the center of the college admission process, this “better way” actually starts with you, the parent.

Let’s dive in!

As your children grew, physically and emotionally, from babies to preteens to teens, your role as a parent shifted. You went from dabbing food from their chins to reminding them to use their napkins.

A teen’s transition into navigating college admission requires the same types of parental adjustment, a shift from pilot to copilot if you will.

As a copilot, you still retain many of your pilot duties. You continue to advise, encourage, ask questions and set limits, such as college budget or location. While you are no longer manning the controls, you sit adjacent to your pilot — or teenager — present at each and every step of the journey. The difference is that you are no longer directing or doing for your teenager.

What might this look like in real life? Attend college tours with your teen, be there to provide moral support, but allow your teen to ask the questions. If you have particular questions about the college, provide them to your teen ahead of time and set the expectation that your teen is the one doing the asking.

By putting your teen squarely in that pilot’s seat, you are reminding them that they hold ownership over the college admissions process. By supporting them throughout, you remind them they have your unwavering support.

Here are three additional suggestions for how you might empower your student via your role of copilot:

1. Schedule Check-Ins Once a Week

In lieu of peppering your student with questions throughout the week, set a weekly day and time to discuss college admission including progress on researching and applying to colleges. (I like dinner time on Saturday night, because students are typically not worn out from a day of school.)

Your student will feel less anxiety, knowing when and where these questions will arise. They can then arrive prepared for the conversation, and in relegating this talk to once a week, you send the message that college does not need to take up space in one’s brain 24/7.

2. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Our opinions about college admission are often shaped by our own experiences, media, friends and family. It's important to check our opinions at the door so that this process is student-centered and in this, productive.

I find I get loads more insight from a student when I ask open-ended questions versus “leading the witness.” It is the difference between, “You’re great with math. Have you thought about statistics?” and, “What topics interest you? What can you see yourself really digging into?”

When teens are given the space to respond, and feel that space is free of judgment, they will volunteer much more information.

3. Set the Tone

The emotions with which you approach this process are visible to your teens, so think on what you’d like to convey to them. I find that the students who do the best work on their college research and applications are compelled by enthusiasm, their own and their parents’.

Truly, this is a very exciting time! Your students are consumers — picking up different careers and colleges off the shelves, reading the labels, opening them up to take a taste. If you convey a consistent enthusiasm for your student and this process, I promise your student will take note.

While these practices may be new to some of you, take heart. As a college admission consultant, I’ve tracked families from the beginning to the end of their college admissions journey. Parents who approach their copiloting role with joy and purpose report back that their teens were excited (not anxious) throughout, stayed on top of their work and deadlines, and were strong communicators. These parents report seeing in their students greater maturity, ownership and appreciation of what it means to go to college.

So get comfortable in that copilot’s seat. Better yet, get excited about it! This journey is a meaningful and rewarding one that can bring out the best in you and your teens.

Founder of Dovetail College Consulting, Amy Romm Lockard is a trusted college admission expert who helps students identify their best fits in careers, colleges and other post-secondary options. A former school counselor, college counselor and teacher, Amy advises students of all personalities, backgrounds, identities and needs. She makes her home in the Pacific Northwest and loves to hear from readers. Visit her website at or e-mail her at [email protected]
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