Who’s got ownership?

To have any chance of being completed successfully, every task or job, whether it’s a homework assignment or a huge goal for an entire organization, needs an owner, someone who takes responsibility for actually making it happen. It doesn’t mean that this person does it all alone. But if there’s no owner, it’s too easy for people to get distracted and lose their focus. And too many unspoken owners (as in, “We’re all responsible”) makes it too easy to point fingers when things go wrong and say, “That part wasn’t my job.”

Every student’s college admissions process needs an owner. And that ownership assignment comes at a tricky time for many families. Some students are trying to wrestle ownership away from parents who’ve previously made all the decisions. Other students actively resist the ownership and wait for other people to handle things for them. And that confusion often just contributes to the anxiety, especially when all involved parties feel like someone else should be in charge.

Like so many important projects, there are a number of people with responsibilities in the college admissions process. But the outcomes are almost always best when the right people take the reins.

Here’s my recommended ownership hierarchy, from most to least responsibility.

1. The student
Bottom line: the student is the one going to college, and the more responsibility he or she takes for their own college admissions process, the more successful they’re going to be. Don’t sit back and wait for your counselor or your parents to handle everything. You can and should seek input and advice from people you trust. But every time you let someone else choose the colleges or complete an application or wedge their words into your essays, you’re losing ownership. And your applications will inevitably show it.

2. The parent
This can be a delicate dance to be second in command while simultaneously being discouraged from actually doing anything yourself. But while it’s your student’s college application process, this is your kid. And nobody is more invested in their happiness and success than you are. Here’s a past post with five important tips to help you identify what you can and should be doing.

3. Your high school counselor, and your private counselor if you have one
It might surprise some people to see counselors listed third here. You might think, “Isn’t this their job?” Yes, it is, but only to a point. For example, if your counselor gives three reminders in three different formats that it’s time for families to complete their FAFSAs, and you ignore those reminders, it’s pretty unfair to say that your counselor didn’t do her job. She’s not the one going to college, she’s not the one raising that future college applicant, and she’s certainly not the one who will be paying the bill. So why should she care more about applying for financial aid than your family does? Expect your counselor to offer you guidance, to answer your questions, and to take responsibility for any other parts of the process that she promised to take care of (this can vary depending on the counselor, their caseload, your school, or the program you’ve selected if the counselor is one you hired). But your counselor doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have more ownership than a parent or student does.

4. Any other professionals or volunteers charged with assisting you in your college quest
As we move down the list, we get to those people who might have responsibility for one isolated part of the process. Your SAT tutor. The person who offered the financial aid workshop. Your English teacher who reviewed your essays. If it’s someone you trust and from whom you sought this help, you should listen to their advice regarding their particular area. But be careful when your SAT tutor tells you to change your essay or your English teacher swears that you’ll get admitted if you apply under a strange major (my high school English teacher told me that I could “practically walk into Berkeley” if I applied as a journalism major—even at that time I knew it was bad information). It’s important to take advice, and allow ownership, from the right sources.

5. Everybody else
College admissions is one area where plenty of people are oddly willing to dish out advice, often while knowing little or nothing about the topic. But the bigger problem with taking advice from friends, neighbors, and other people who aren’t charged with assisting you on the road to college is that they just don’t have enough skin in the game, something I’ve written about before. Your neighbor might tell you where to apply or what to write your essay about, but unless she’s assuming some ownership and willing to accept partial responsibility for the outcome (something few people in this category are ever willing to do), go higher up the ownership chain for your guidance.