This is a question we get asked by a lot of people, and we understand that parents are very concerned about college and their children’s futures. College is a big deal, and there’s a lot of wisdom in preparing early and deliberately. In order for students to really succeed in applying to college (and in life), it’s important for them to work hard early on towards becoming a strong applicant. For this reason, this article will not go into any of the mechanics or technicalities of the college application process itself like deciding between the ACT / SAT or choosing which SAT II’s to take. Instead, this post will focus on how to become the kind of person for whom the top colleges are looking.
Be advised, some of the advice outlined in this article will seem counter-intuitive and may even be antithetical to what you’re currently doing. Please know that this is in no way a judgment of anyone’s parenting or parent-child relationships. The advice we give here is simply based on what we’ve learned from countless parents both inside and outside of our program.
Another word of warning, this advice is not universal. It is ideally suited for 8th, 9th and even 10th grade students. Some of the strategies will not work well with students who are much younger.
1. Foster Autonomy
First and foremost, we encourage parents to let go. Allow your child the freedom to explore within boundaries. Give them autonomy. Give them opportunities to connect with great teachers and awesome mentors. As early as 9th grade in high school, parents should start loosening the reins and allowing their children to do more independent exploring.
Parents can help create opportunities for their child, but the results of those opportunities, what the child actually achieves or gains from them, must ultimately be left up to themselves. By making their own choices, they will have greater ownership than if the parents are too involved. The more parents get involved, the less ownership children take for themselves. When they go off to college, they will have to make almost all of their own decisions anyway so better to start early..
But even before leaving for college, the impact of this autonomy and ownership will be crystal clear in your child’s application. Students who have experienced ownership of their lives throughout high school universally put together better applications because they have more to say and can draw upon more interesting and unique experiences in an authentic way. Imagine writing a report on a project where someone else did the work. That’s what it can feel like to write the college essay for students who don’t have ownership.
2. Ask for reflections, not reports
Letting go is never easy, but instead of feeling powerless or disconnected, parents can look for other ways to get involved. Your relationship is changing, so you need to change with it. Your child still needs your guidance. We find that one of the best things parents can do for their children is to just talk to them. But rather than following the traditional report-style conversation, try asking open-ended thought-provoking questions that will get them to reflect on their experiences and draw out more insights. Use your wisdom and experience to help them process difficult questions or confusing situations. Avoid prescribing what they should do or which conclusions to draw. Rather, guide them to reach those ends on their own.
Another example of this is to provide the crucial emotional support that many students will rely on as they embark on a Spike or other independent project. As parents, the conversations you have around the dining room table can be the emotional foundation that your child needs to push through a particularly difficult part of their journey.
Getting better at reflecting will improve their ability to learn because it increases their ability to process and integrate new information. Combining that with the added emotional support will allow your child to learn and grow faster than they would otherwise and thus be in a stronger position by the time they apply to college.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should leave your child unaccountable. It is still important for them to be making real progress and delivering on real outcomes. We are simply making an argument that both accountability and support are important, and from what we’ve seen, most parents usually focus too much on accountability alone.
3. Have values-based conversations
A large part of any college application is showing off who you are. This can be really hard for your child to to do this if they don’t yet know who they are. Knowing themselves also knowing their strong values and personal character. As a parent, it’s useful to Have more conversations with your children about their values and their character.. This can be as simple as helping them think through something they’re dealing with in school like social or academic pressure. We often see students who are not familiar or comfortable with talking about these things. For many students, their college essay is the first time they have to reflect deeply on themselves. Having these types of conversations with your child in a smaller, lower-stakes context will allow him or her to be ready when it comes time for them to apply to college.
This is particularly important because colleges are not only concerned about all of the awesome things you’ve done throughout high school, they also care about who you are as a person. After all, they call the Common App essay a “Personal Statement” for a reason. Character is often defined by actions and achievements, so there can’t be one without the other. Building awareness for this connection between values and actions is key.
Values and personal character also take a long time to develop, so it’s never too early to start helping your child grow in this aspect.
4. Explore, don’t over-schedule
Colleges love students who care deeply about something: who stand for something. However, it’s hard for students (and anyone for that matter) to figure out what they care about without first trying a lot of things. Parents should create opportunities for their children to explore outside of the traditional classroom setting. The challenge with this is that exploration is messy. It’s much easier to sign up for pre-packaged programs that function like an academic bus tour through various topics. For your child to really explore, put them in the driver’s seat.
Here are a few strategies to try out:
- Saturday Morning Project — Schedule a time during the week where your child can intentionally explore. Without having this dedicated time, it’s too easy to de-prioritize exploration with other more urgent things like homework or extracurriculars.
- Reading Time — Reading is one of the best ways to explore ideas and information. Encourage your child to read more by helping them get books in the topics they’re interested in or even by reading with them. Through this, your child will become a better explorer.
- Find a Community — Connect your child with a community of interest. For example, if he or she is interested in rockets, join a meet-up for aerospace engineers. Communities are great sources of knowledge, inspiration, and networking connections. Often times, it will be on you as the parent to help make these meet-ups work because your child might need transportation, permission, or other support.
- Attend Events — Similar to communities of interest, events are another great way for your child to learn more about a particular topic and explore their interest. For example, if there’s a lecture at your local university about the big bang and you think your 9th grader might be interested, encourage them to check it out!
Don’t go overboard through. The ultimate goal here is for your children to figure out what matters to them, not for them to be busy. This might sound obvious, but the classic strategy for most parents who are trying to set their children up for college success is to have them do a lot of things. This strategy is unwise because it usually ends up limiting their children’s ability to process what they’re doing, and they lose track of why they’re doing things in the first place.
5. Encourage debate
This is probably the last thing that many parents want to hear. After all, teenagers are notorious for arguing, talking back, and engaging in generally mean banter. But debate is an essential ingredient in getting your child ready for college. Ideas are sharpened when they come into contact with other ideas, and colleges love to see clear and strong ideas from their prospective students. The sharpening of ideas directly leads to what we at The Spike Lab call “strong opinions.” At the end of the day, colleges are intellectual institutions where ideas are debated regularly, so admissions offices are looking for students who can contribute to these debates through their strong opinions about the world.
Debate allows your child to practice developing strong opinions because it pushes them to take a position and defend it. In defending their ideas, they will also discover which parts of those ideas they care about and which parts they don’t. These are the seeds of strong opinions.
- Develop your own strong opinions. It will be difficult for you to sustain a debate or conversation with your child if you don’t also have some strong opinions of your own.
- Learn more about the strong opinions that your child has already developed. There may already be some strong opinions (or at least the beginnings of them) that you can start learning about so you can better engage. You don’t have to become an expert on the subject, but it would be helpful if you could know enough to engage in a discussion. If your child is interested in climate change, you might need to learn about greenhouse gases and how the ozone layer works.
The advice outlined in this post is easy to talk about but difficult to do. We encourage parents to keep trying even when it’s challenging or difficult because these suggestions require time consistency create an impact. We also understand that you, as a parent, are often very busy. You can’t implement all of these suggestions and you shouldn’t. Pick a few to try and see how things go. We think that these methods are particularly effective for younger students because many of these strategies build habits that will enable students to become much stronger applicants in the long run.
We work with students on all of the philosophies described in this post beginning as early as 7th grade, so book a free consultation with us if you’d like to learn more.