Five application management tips for parents

I spend a lot of time here reminding parents that your most important college-admissions-related job is to be the parent of your applicant. Love your student unconditionally. Remember that it’s all about them, not you. Cheer them on and don’t act like a lunatic on their behalf. During this stressful time, your kids need a parent who takes this job seriously.

But at some level, many parents are in fact managers of the college admissions process.

I hesitate to use the term “managers” because it can conjure up expectations that you’ll run the show—making every decision, tracking all the progress, and even hijacking the entire project from the student who needs to be driving it.

But it’s natural for a good parent to feel some sense of responsibility for their kid’s success. The cost of total college admissions failure, like missing all the deadlines or ending up with no colleges to attend, would be a lot to bear for both the student and parent. And much as great managers at work find ways to help their employees drive their own success without the manager being in the middle of it all the time, parents can strive to do the same thing with their college applicant in the house.

So here are a few management principles that can be applied productively for parents of college applicants.

1. Remind them of their strengths.
A great manager notices the unique strengths of each employee and then makes sure the employee both recognizes and deploys them well. Nobody knows your kids better than you do. But many people, not just teens, aren’t yet aware of those areas where they are at their best. So point them out. Have they always set high goals for themselves? Do they always seem to treat people well? Are they fearless about initiating new things, or able to meet new people easily, or so responsible that people look to them when the chips are down? This is the perfect time to not only point those strengths out, but also remind them that it’s these strengths that will make them successful at whatever college is lucky enough to get them.

2. Agree on expectations.
Does your teen know what you expect of them during this time? High expectations paired with unconditional love strike a good balance with kids. Do they know which parts of the process they’ll retain full responsibility for, and where they can expect help? Do they know how you define success? Have a conversation early about those expectations. And ask them about their own. How would they like this to go? What does success look like? What do they want to own and where do they feel they might need help? And as you have these conversations, please remember to keep the expectations focused on outcomes your teen can control. Progress, meeting deadlines, and communication with you are under their control. Admissions decisions are not.

3. Ask them, “How often would you like me to check in with you about your progress?”
This one is important. A great manager knows that some people need a lot more direction, feedback, and opportunities to ask questions than others do. So they start by asking, “How often would you like me to check in with you about your progress?” Notice that the manager presumes those check-ins will happen, but they give the employee the choice about how often. If your teen responds, “Please just let me handle it,” consider agreeing with that proposal conditionally. Ask them to check in with you at well-defined intervals that you agree on. The goal of these interactions should be to make your student feel supported, not directed.

4. Recognize and praise great work.
Nobody likes working for a boss who only chimes in to tell an employee what they’ve done wrong. And everyone likes to feel recognized for praise-worthy work along the way. Frequent praise done well not only motivates people, it also helps them bring out even more of what’s already working. Here’s a past post with some advice on how to praise effectively.

5. Confront poor performance early, but not punitively.
If an employee struggles to meet the expectations, a great manager intervenes early, and does so from a place of concern. They don’t necessarily do so at the very first wisp of difficulty, but they don’t let a struggling employee languish, either. So if you see your teen struggling, or creeping too close to deadlines, or outright ignoring the work you agreed together they would do, have a direct but nurturing conversation. Tell them you’re worried, express your desire to help, but remain vigilant in your commitment to let them retain ownership of their process.

Also, Patrick O’Connor just reposted his wonderful recommendations on this topic. I believe they work nicely alongside mine, though Patrick’s also involve pizza, which is certainly a bonus.