What to Do When Your Child Wants You to Be a Helicopter Parent During the College Search
Here’s something I witnessed in the admission office many, many times: Parents playing an active role in
What happens when the student wants you to do it all? I saw a lot of this:
- Parents who called me in the admission office (not their student).
- Emails from parents with questions (I never heard from their kid).
- Parents who filled out applications for their kids (it was sometimes obvious!)
Now, to be fair, students sometimes messaged me. The occasional student even talked to me on the phone.
One mom, Mrs. Bach, left me this voicemail: “This is Mrs. Bach, Emily’s secretary. Emily refuses to pick up the phone, so I’m calling to ask questions about your college’s music scholarship.”
It made me smile, but I also know Mrs. Bach was slowly being driven crazy by her daughter’s reluctance to handle her own college communication.
What should you do when your kid wants you to be a helicopter parent? (Maybe not even consciously?) I know you’ve probably heard this term before, but just in case: Helicopter parents before college hover and take care of every part of their child’s life. On the other hand, lawnmower parents mow down any person or obstacle that stands in the way of anyone or anything that causes their child discomfort or frustration.
Here are a few tips to set expectations, goals
1. Set Clear Expectations Up Front
Make sure your child knows your comfort level with helping in advance. For example, you can tell your high schooler you’re definitely on board to assist during the college search process but you’re not going to do everything for him. Explain your reasoning and explain your limits way before the college search begins.
Remind your high schooler that completing college admission requirements, scholarships and more doesn’t mean he’s overburdened. Instead, explain that he’s gaining the mental strength he needs to get ready for college.
2. Divvy Up Responsibilities
Decide ahead of time who will handle specific parts of the college search. For example, you might decide you can handle the following:
- Transportation to and from colleges
- Filing the FAFSA
- Financial aid conversations with the college
- Timeline conversations with admission counselors
- Scheduling college visits
You might decide your child will handle:
- Scholarship applications and essays
- College research online
- Getting permission slips from the high school
- College applications (and managing those deadlines)
- Scheduling any required alumni interviews
- Communicate with admission counselors about fit and social aspects of colleges
- Talking with coaches
Maybe you’ll choose to do the following together:
- Schedule college visits over the phone
- Attend all scheduled college visits and meetings
- Go to scholarship events at the college (if applicable)
- Scholarship searches
- Talk through financial aid awards
Obviously, you can pick and choose which tasks make the most sense for each of you. Your child may be completely fine with scheduling college visits on his own and doing robust scholarship searches.
No matter what, figure all this out ahead of time and gently hold each other accountable.
3. Set Goals Together
Setting goals together is different than splitting up responsibilities. Setting goals during the college search is a great way to make sure you’re on track. The beauty of goal-setting is that you can kick start it at any time, whether you’ve got a year left in the college search process or three. For example, let’s say your child is a junior in high school. You can map out goals over the next two years. Let’s say you’ve got twin eighth graders. Why not set some loose goals for the next four years?
Make sure your goals are specific, detailed and indicate when you’d like to accomplish them.
Let’s say one of your high schooler’s goals is to get into a prestigious university. He could even write it down: “Get into Carnegie Mellon.” But would that actually help him? Nah. A general phrase like that won’t help your child (or you!) hone in on exactly what you both need to do in order to make that happen.
Instead, research what it will take to get there. For example, let’s say you look up Carnegie Mellon’s requirements for the School of Architecture. You find out that your child must:
- Apply Regular Decision before January 1 during senior year using the Common Application.
- Submit a portfolio of creative work for admission to the school of architecture.
- Complete an on-campus review of the portfolio submission.
What will it take to get there?
Here are some targeted goals your child could write:
- Request information from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture today.
- Take an architecture software class at the local community college by May of sophomore year.
- Talk to an architect in my community who can advise me on how to put together an architecture portfolio and assist with a project by June of
- Design several small buildings using this software during junior year.
- Design my aunt’s new home that she’s planning to build during junior year.
- Create a portfolio that showcases design creativity and technical expertise in several types of architecture software like Grasshopper or Rhino3D fall of senior year.
Did you notice goal No. 1 on the list? It’s a goal that allows your child to take immediate action. Taking an immediate step toward a major goal makes it more real and builds momentum toward the ultimate goal.
Here’s a way you can apply it in another way. Let’s say your child has always wanted to travel to Europe with a friend, spouse
- Call a travel agent today and discuss your future plans.
- Request a brochure from a travel company.
- Set a date within 24 hours. Why not?
See how doing those three things can make something seem so real for your child?
Your child can set small, realistic, specific and attainable goals that lead to the big goal in the end — getting into Carnegie Mellon. Or achieving a specific scholarship — or whatever that goal may be!
4. Write Down Those Goals!
Encourage your child to write down his or her goals. There’s such power in writing down goals! Put them in a place where you’ll both see them every day, whether they’re on a Post-it Note stuck to the bathroom mirror or a printed-out list on the refrigerator (as long as your child doesn’t see them as a constant nagging reminder!).
Trello, a free service, is a great way to handle scholarship applications or college applications. It could include categories like this:
- Scholarships to apply for/ Applications to complete
- In progress
- Draft complete
- In editing
- Ready to submit
Trello is a great way to keep track of progress and all family members can use it to aid the college search.
5. Acknowledge Steps Taken
Once you and your child have set those goals, it’s time to tackle them. Now, what happens if your child finds that his or her goals are difficult to achieve?
Break them down into smaller, more manageable chunks. This might take a little more planning but it’s always better to make sure goals are achievable. Otherwise, it would be really easy to give up on them. Be flexible with due dates if it’s an option.
Every time your child achieves one of his or her goals or mini-goals, celebrate! Acknowledging achievements goes a very, very long way during the college search.
6. Pivot When Goals Aren’t Met
What happens if a goal slips right past your child because he just didn’t feel like doing the work or is unable to complete it in the allotted time?
For example, what if your child doesn’t want to do the work to get into Carnegie Mellon’s architecture program?
It might be time to go back to the drawing board and figure out whether that’s really your child’s best path. Maybe committing to an architecture major at 18 isn’t the best option! Get to the root of the problem — have some serious conversations with your child and decide what you’ll do next.
So what do you do?
You move forward with the next plan. Maybe the next goal is to apply to Carnegie Mellon using the Common Application after August 15. Maybe the new goal is to get into Arcadia University, closer to home! Break down those goals, write down the new goals
Nip Helicoptering (or Lawnmowering) in the Bud
Your child may be used to your heavy helping hand (remember that science fair project? Yikes!) but now’s the time for your child to start learning how to move independently. Recognizing that deserves a huge round of applause.
One more quick tip: It might not help to air frustrations during this time. You want to be as positive as possible during the college search and you want to be your child’s partner during the process. Remember, your goals may not be the same as your child’s goals. It can be tough to wrap your head around (and tough to accept!) alternative decisions.