Parent's Guide to Supporting a Child Through Their College Application Journey



Written by  Anita Gajula, Collegewise Admissions Counselor

I like to say there are three questions that come up repeatedly in life, and the answers are different each time. Those basic and profoundly difficult questions are:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I want?
  • How will I get what I want?

There’s also a 4th and 5th: 

  • Why are you who you are? 


  • Why do you want what you want?

However, these two are much too existential for this short piece of writing!

Parents who want to support their student during their college journey can be particularly supportive if they ask their children these questions and echo back what they hear. They can also remind their child about past experiences to help them answer these questions better.

Question 1: Who are they?

The college process is the first time most students have been confronted with these questions in a meaningful way. For most students, their parents have chosen where to live and, therefore, the primary and high schools they are attending. 

The basic school curriculum is usually set, with parents and students making only a few decisions. The student’s friends are usually people in their neighborhoods, classes, and activities.

When college applications come around, students suddenly have many choices. There are over four thousand colleges and universities out there to choose from in the US alone. Students are asked what they want to do with their lives and what they want to study. It can be overwhelming.

I suggest parents start the college search by helping their children think about who they are with a few big reflection questions:

  • What are their own personal interests, values, and skills?
  • What have they enjoyed about their life so far?
  • What do they like and dislike about their high school?
  • What are their favorite and least favorite classes?
  • What activities have they enjoyed and continued versus the ones they tried and left?
  • What atmospheres have they thrived in, and which ones have left them unsatisfied?
  • Have they enjoyed getting to know their teachers, or do they enjoy a more passive, distant learning style?
  • What is the financial status of your family?

Another part of determining who they are is thinking about who they want to be. For instance, they might decide they are currently shy but wish they were more outgoing. Coming to this kind of realization early in the process can be extremely valuable as they begin to make important decisions about their future. 

There is so much noise in the world of college admissions. When a student doesn’t yet know who they are and what they might want, it can be easy for them to lose focus and become overwhelmed during their application journey.  

When we encourage our kids to dig internally and think about what they value, rather than what other people think is important. Doing this work can alleviate a lot of unnecessary noise and stress and enable them to stay focused and move forward with purpose. 

Question 2: What do they want?

Students can use the second question, “what do they want?” to help with their college search. As a parent, remember not to skip the big reflection questions above, as they can help inform some of the answers below. 

  • Do they want to attend a big school or a small school?
  • Do they want to live in an urban, suburban, or rural setting?
  • How far away do they want to be from home?
  • What might they study? What areas of study do they want to explore?
  • What kinds of skills do they want to gain and learn?
  • Are they willing to go into debt for a degree?
  • Do they want or need scholarships to cover most costs?

Every student needs a few criteria for the college search to get them started. But they shouldn’t have too many priorities because they might be left with few options. This is where visiting local schools can help. No one is asking or expecting them to attend these schools. This is just preliminary window shopping to see some options. 

Walk around these local schools with your child. Don’t bother with the formal tour; sit in the student union and observe. What impressions does your child have? Do they like that environment? 

I find that students do much better with the search process when college is no longer part of their imagination, but rather a reality in front of them. Most students have not spent time on campuses, so seeing a campus or a few campuses in person is important.

Then, encourage them to dive deeper into the types of colleges out there and do their own research. Remind them that no college is perfect, so they should keep an open mind while also narrowing down their possibilities. 

At this point, they’ll have the tools and information they need to build a college list. I recommend that the final list should contain 6-10 schools. At least 2 of those should be likely schools where they want to attend, they will get in, and they can afford.

Question 3: How will they get what they want?

Finally, we get to filling out the actual application. This is where your students must verbalize who they are and what they want, so I hope they have been taking notes! There are essays to write, activities to describe, recommenders to ask, and biographical data to fill out on the applications. There are also hard decisions to make about their final list and whether they will apply early or not.

As they start to complete their applications, your child needs to be organized and keep a good, steady pace with their work. This part is often exhausting for seniors because they are juggling school work, activities, family, friends, mental and physical health, and the details of their applications. 

Again, remind them to ignore the noise and encourage them to set their own to-do list and pace for how they will get things done.

Then, after they’ve submitted their applications and received their decisions, there will hopefully be some tough choices to make as they decide on the destination. Tell them not to be swayed by anyone else here. Remind them to think about who they are and what they want. Which place best fulfills their needs and desires?

Keep coming back to the basic questions

There will be multiple points in your children’s lives when they should return to these fundamentals. When choosing a major or summer experience, they must consider who they are and what they want. 

When they get close to graduating from college, these questions of “who am I, what do I want, and how will I get what I want?” will come up again. When they are job searching, starting or ending romantic relationships, experiencing the loss of someone close to them, or starting a family of their own, these issues will surface again and again. Their answers will change because we are always growing and changing as humans.

I will also say that most people ask these questions in the wrong order. When they are looking for a job, they dive into their resume or look online for job ads instead of thinking about what they have enjoyed and disliked about past jobs and what they want from a new job. 

In the college process, I find far too many people worrying about essay writing or results without figuring out who they are and what they want. Answer these questions first, and be able to articulate their answers to others out there, especially in the college application process or in a job search. 

People like Brennan Barnard and Rick Clark talk about the admissions process being a rite of passage in their book, The Truth About College Admissions. I agree wholeheartedly. Any rite of passage is one where enormous amounts of change occur. It’s where we figure out what we are truly made of and what our character is. 

The college search is likely the first time your student is actively asking and answering these questions, but when they get through this, they will have this experience to lean on for other stages in their lives. Parents know their children well and can be great sounding boards as their kids figure these things out.


Anita Gajula has spent her entire career in service of students—as a student affairs professional at Macalester, as an academic advisor at the University of Chicago, as a College Admissions Advisor both in her own practice and in other firms, and now as a Collegewise counselor. She’s helped hundreds of students through the college admissions process, whether it be through test prep, college application management, or essay support.  


About Collegewise

For over 24 years, Collegewise has been at the forefront of college counseling and tutoring, ensuring that families, schools and nonprofits have the most up-to-date, honest information about admissions. Collegewise is committed to helping communities around the world understand that applying to university should be an exciting time, not a stressful, anxiety-ridden rite of passage. 

With 500+ years of combined experience, Collegewise’s expert counselors have guided 28,000 students from all walks of life. From navigating high school to finding their students’ ideal university matches and securing acceptances, Collegewise counselors infuse the process with a sense of calm and joy, giving families the confidence they need to succeed.  

Collegewise also partners with schools and outside counselors to enhance the college application experience within their communities. The company develops an array of free events, guides, podcasts, and blog posts, so every family can embark on a less stressful and more successful journey to college.

If you are interested in learning about Collegewise’s 1:1 services, please visit to schedule a free one-on-one consultation with an expert program advisor. During the 45-minute meeting, your advisor will answer all of your pressing questions and gain a deep understanding of your family’s goals. Then, they’ll develop a personalized program, which may include: college counseling support, development of success skills, extracurricular and leadership guidance, athletic recruitment support, and/or financial aid & scholarship support. 

Looking for more? Check out additional resources below: