Establish Ownership in the College Planning Process

The best outcomes in college planning occur when the student, not the parent, takes control.

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May is a month when high school juniors find themselves staring at the seemingly uphill portion of the college planning process. Whereas college may have been on the radar screen for quite a while, the task of getting there is now approached with a sense of earnestness.

The next 12 months will find students compiling lists and sorting through options in the hopes of happy outcomes. Just contemplating the upcoming gauntlet of college visits, essay preparation, and tests—not to mention the panicked rush to meet application deadlines—can induce waves of anxiety for even the most thoughtfully organized families.

Getting to the happy endpoint with a modicum of sanity intact requires an implicit understanding of roles and responsibilities. And it requires recognition that ownership of the process and the outcomes rests with the student.

The question of ownership in the college planning process isn't easily or comfortably resolved—if addressed at all—within many families. After all, parents have been heavily invested in their children's outcomes since birth. College is simply an extension of the litany of experiences that parents intend for their children on the way to establishing happy and productive lives. And who, better than the parents, can make the critical decisions about where and how to apply?

[Read answers to parents' college planning questions.]

The truth of the matter is that the college application and selection process represents a launching pad for young adults as they emerge from the comforts of home, family, and all that is known into a world of self-discovery. They need to recognize—and seize—the opportunities for reasons that are important to them and no one else.

This assertion can be difficult for some parents to swallow. After all, it isn't easy to give up control and expect an 18-year-old with little-to-no experience to make the right decisions in managing a complex process when the stakes are so high. For these parents, peace of mind is found in handling the important decisions themselves: hiring private educational consultants, putting kids in pricey test prep programs, and paying for essay-editing services.

When this happens, students become spectators in the planning for their respective futures. Forced to the sidelines, they are not able to learn and practice good decision-making skills and experience accountability for their actions in a process that impacts their respective futures. Unable to truly affect outcomes, they are affected by them.

The best outcomes in college planning occur when the student is vested with ownership. After all, the parents aren't going to college—it is the student who must compete for admission. And it is the student, who, based on the strength of credentials and preparation, will be given the opportunity to test skills at the next level educationally.

[Get advice from U.S. News on finding the right school.]

Achieving this opportunity in a manner that is ultimately rewarding to the student and satisfying to the parent calls for an approach in which parents cede ownership to their students, where directing gives way to guiding. Turning over the controls isn't easy, but at some point it's necessary. (If you have taught your kids to drive, you know what I mean!)

For kids, going to college represents, among other things, the opportunity to step out of their parents' shadows and into a world of possibilities they can begin to imagine for themselves. And getting there, despite their inexperience and busy schedules, is something they must learn to do for themselves.

The gift of ownership, then, can be incredibly empowering for a young person. College admissions officers are eager to see how students are emerging as young adults. They want to hear their voices and learn about their accomplishments. They want a measure of the student's vision and self-confidence that can only come from the student.

As parents, you have done your jobs in bringing your children to the point where they can begin speaking for themselves. Now, it's their turn.

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