College Application Process: I Don't Get It

When I applied to colleges (admittedly quite some time ago) the process was far more arduous than now when kids can just fill out one online application for the entire CA State system. My siblings and I had to research colleges in the library, send away (by mail!) for the application materials, collect transcripts in person, handwrite essays, ask teachers for recommendations, and track the whole process according to each school's individual requirements. We did literally ALL of this without any help whatsoever from parents or school guidance counselors. It never even occurred to any of us that parents would or could be involved.

When I talked with my mom about how this is done now—parents taking on the whole process themselves, hiring a coach or counselor to walk them through every step, as well as a tutor to basically write the essays for the kids, she said to me:   "College applications are a really good test. If your 18 year old cannot manage the whole thing on their own they're not ready for college and you're wasting your money sending them there."

I think this is a very good point. By the time my kid has graduated his Junior year in high school he should be perfectly capable of navigating the application process on his own. If he can't, why would I be sending him away to manage his education and life independently just a year later? 

So this is my plan for my son but I did want to at least check in with the good people at BPN. Has something incredibly complicated happened with college applications that I'm not aware of? If you did manage the process for your kid, was it because your kid wanted it or because it helped you with the letting go in some way? Other drawbacks or benefits I'm not thinking of??

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I know very few families (one? maybe two?) who hire coaches or tutors for college applications—curious to know where you live that this is common! At any rate, yes, the application process itself is far more streamlined than it was 30 years ago, even for private colleges. It is also higher stakes because while the number of prospective college students has grown considerably in the last several decades, the number of college seats has not, so some of what you're seeing may be driven by anxiety (on the part of either/both parents and students) around acceptance rates. But yes, I think it's fine to have your child manage the process if you're confident that they are able to do so. Some kids are, and others aren't. We are fortunate in California to have a strong community college system so kids have many options even if they aren't ready for or interested in a four-year college. However, I do think another significant change in the past generation has been the importance of having a college degree, wherever it's attained. It was a nice-to-have 30 years ago, but today it's a must-have for the vast majority of job opportunities that pay a living wage. So from that perspective, I'd be inclined to provide supports as needed to get a child enrolled—but that could easily look like enrolling in the local community college or a gap year if your child isn't yet ready to live independently.

I applied to TWO UCs and got into both. I think my mom read my essays because she was a high school English teacher. But other than that, all my parents did was write the check for the applications.

So on one hand, I agree with you. But as the parent of an 11th grader, times have changed!! Acceptance rates have plummeted. UCLA now is 11%. It was about 40% when my husband went. Now, there are different application processes to navigate, and kids apply to many more schools. I’m not writing my kid’s essays or doing her research, but will I ask her to handle the entire daunting process alone? No. Not sure what district you’re in, but I know many kids at BHS who do pay college counselors to help. BHS also has the CCC which is a great free resource. The process is simply not like it was when you applied to college. This last round of college applications - kids with absolutely incredible stats didn’t get into any school they applied to. Maybe no one helped them with their expectations. Maybe their essays were terrible. Maybe they had no extracurriculars. Someone who understands the process needed to help them. I don’t plan to hold my kid’s hand, but I also don’t expect her to navigate it alone. 

You raise some very good points. I let my three kids manage their own college applications, but I’ve always been relaxed about the process. Finding the right fit is much more important than the selectivity of the school. I think it’s mainly the anxious parents who want their kids going to ivies, who are the ones spending money on college counselors. I let my kids know that I was available if they had questions. They wrote their own essays, but they asked me to help brainstorm ideas and then to edit them. The main aspect I wanted to know about was the money part. Of the universities they were considering, I researched which offered scholarships, etc. so I could get a grasp on how much money would be needed. Yes, there are lots of options in California. One of my kids got into a selective UC, but opted to attend community college first for the sports, which was fine with me. 
The applications are so streamlined now, and kids operate quite efficiently online, so they should be quite capable of handling it all. Back in the day, I mailed my application to Cal and choose a 2nd and 3rd choice, and I had to gather everything together myself. Parents should relax and give their kids more credit than they sometimes get for their ability to manage things like college applications. Good luck!

No! Nothing incredibly complicated has happened. This is 100% one of those things that collective anxiety has turned into a far bigger deal than it is. Getting into some colleges may be much more difficult than it used to be, but the applications are simple (and there are plenty of good schools that aren't too hard to get into). The application process is straight forward and there are tons of free resources out there to help a kid through it. If your kid goes to Berkeley High, they will be totally walked through it by the College and Career Center (and if they don't--you can still check out the resources offered by the CCC on the BHS website).

When my kid applied this year, I thought they were doing something wrong because it was so easy for them (and things don't always come easy to them). They weren't. They got into plenty of schools. Helping them create a good list of schools to apply to was my most valuable contribution (suggesting places to look at, talking through what they wanted in a school).

Like you, I did college myself but I wish I’d had parents who would have been more engaged with what I wanted or what I was thinking. 

For our daughter, We hired a college counselor summer before her junior year for a few reasons. 1st we wanted to stay OUT of the anxious, helicoptering of the college application process,2nd we felt websites didn’t convey the real information she needed to figure out what schools would be a good fit for her personally or which schools she was likely to get into (reach, target and easy schools for her) and 3rd she was going abroad for second semester of junior year. It was totally worth the money! She consulted with us about tuitions, locations and sometimes shared an essay.

She felt great about it-she did the work- the counselor kept her on track. ALOT of development occurs between junior year and graduation so a junior who can’t quite keep organized won’t necessarily not be ready for the independence of college.

The difference between college admissions in the 1980s and college admissions in 2021 is admission rates.  For example in 1988, UCLA admitted 42% of applicants. In 2020, it admitted 12.3%.  (The admission rate for the engineering school was an even lower 9.7% in 2019.)

In the early 1980s, I was admitted to UCLA with an SAT score of 1320 and a high school GPA of 3.75.  I had taken only two AP classes and did some minor extracurricular activities. I did no SAT prep and did not have help with my application. Recently, UCLA rejected both of my children.  Their SAT scores were higher (1390, 1530). Their GPAs were higher (3.8, 3.9).  They took many more AP classes and spent much time on their extracurricular activities.  They studied hard in their SAT prep course (and it did raise their scores) and slaved over their essays (which I edited), and still weren't considered good enough. (We did not hire an admissions counselor.)

So the question is: what college is your child aiming for and how can they acquire the qualifications necessary for admission and present them in the best light?   Your child will probably have to apply to many more schools (because it's harder to get into each individual school, so you need to cast a wider net.)  The applications themselves now generally require more essays.  A high-achieving, very organized student who is a good writer can probably manage the application process on their own, but many benefit from some help.  

(Both my children attend excellent colleges.  Next month, the oldest will graduate summa cum laude from a college with an even lower admission rate than UCLA's.)

This is a great question, it touches on so many parenting-transition-to-adulthood issues. I have found that when I get to a point where I’m trying to figure out how much to support (“scaffold”) vs promote independence, it’s important to

1) know my kid well — where does he excel and where does he struggle? Does he want to go to college and why/why not?


2) involve my teen in the decision. I would not recommend starting with “in my day...” but instead “I’ve noticed a lot of teens seem to have college counselors to help with the process. What have you noticed, what do you think?”  Try to do it on a drive where you are both alone in the car, in the front seat, if talking with your teen can be fraught. See what they say! It might open a door to a discussion about goals, initiative, motivation, challenges and areas of strength.

best of luck!

We just got through college applications with our oldest kid and if anything, I think the college application process is more complicated than when we were teens - it's easier to submit the actual forms, but he had to put a lot more thought and analysis into everything than I ever did, and it's much more competitive. I pretty much let him drive the process - he decided where to apply, kept track of deadlines, filled out the applications, wrote the personal questions answers, filled out the financial aid applications. What I provided was support - I read his essay answers and made suggestions (and it's kind of fun and enlightening to see what they write, btw), I checked in with him when I knew deadlines were approaching, I supplied the financial details he didn't have. He got a tiny bit of guidance from his (large, public) school, but I wouldn't say it was hand-holding in any way - more that there were resources available if he sought them out. To be fair, he's always been a pretty self-sufficient kid, so I felt comfortable trusting him with this process - all kids are different, and some will require more direction and management, but I'd still recommend being as hands-off as possible because it really is a valuable experience for them. Like your mom said, this is a big step in him managing things himself - I certainly don't plan on handling things for him when he's in college. I know some people who have hired coaches, but it doesn't seem universal. Good luck!

I dont think it;s the norm for most families to hire coaches and all that. There are free resources that are really helpful though including your HS, and UC / CSU themselves. We went to free admissions workshops that really explained the application process for both. For CSU (other than Cal Poly which is more similar to UC), it is very straightforward - they just look at the numbers. If you have the required combo of GPA and test score, you're in. For UC, it is more comprehensive and you need to understand how to use all the spots on the application where you can give additional info beyond what shows on your transcript. In terms of the essay, we live in SF and my son went to a free essay writing session at an org called 826 Valencia that was very helpful. They have a weekend each fall where seniors can work one on one with a trained volunteer (many of whom are English teachers etc.) I'm sure there's something similar in the East Bay. My son made a lot of progress on his essays at that session and also got feedback on them from teachers and adult friends and relatives. No pro coaches.

My kids applied for colleges in 2005 and 2006 so I cannot speak to the current process. However, they were adamant in managing the process by themselves and were evidently successful. They may have deigned to let me look at an essay but did not ask for further assistance, with the exception of the FAFSA. If your kid has confidence, that bodes well for getting out in the wide world. I'm sure that there are safeguards to the process (save a draft and submit later) if parental review is needed. Good luck!

I think college applications have become a lot more competitive because it is harder to get into a good college. And to increase chances that their offspring gets into a desirable college, many parents are willing to spend a good amount of money.

Our son handled the application process on his own (he only applied to several UCs). His high school offered a college essay writing workshop on a Saturday to which he went. Also his AP Language teacher (I think it was that class) had them write an essay to one of the UC essay prompts. And we read his essays and looked over his application and made some suggestions. In addition we drove him to two SAT tests in addition to the one his school offered, bought him an SAT study guide and study guides for some of his AP classes (offered for all but he only wanted one for some).

I just went through this process with my daughter who will be starting college in the fall at an out of state public university. I was prepared for the worst but the process was not that bad. Covid and no SAT/ACT took a lot of the pressure off. My daughter was accepted at 7 out of 9 schools she applied to. She is a B student, no AP or honors classes, some school sports, some outside activities and work experience, again limited because of Covid. My point is that there are so many schools out there all over the country for every kind of student and the pressure is unwarranted. I think that the pressure is due to the anxiety that parents feel that without a degree from a certain level of university a student is economically handicapped for life. And because it is so easy to apply to multiple schools people do so and it messes with the acceptance rates which makes it seem that all schools are harder to get into. To some degree this is true, especially in California where our public university system has not grown to meet the demand of the population. My daughter was so intimidated by the process that she pushed against it for a long time. One day in the late summer before her senior year something just clicked and she got on board. She filled out all of the online applications herself, did the essay herself with minimal feedback, some of which she took and some of which she didn't. I supervised from afar, answering questions when needed. I do think that some supervision from parents is helpful and probably necessary because there is a lot of information coming at them, the process is more involved than it was 30 years ago. But overall I agree that a senior should be able to handle the process with minimal supervision and hiring a counselor probably isn't necessary unless he is trying to get into extremely competitive programs.

I disagree with your mom. I think most 16-17 year olds (especially boys) are still developing executive function that will be much better by 18. a little scaffolding can make a huge difference to their future. our two kids really benefited by some scaffolding of reminders of deadlines and the importance of starting college essays/applications/thinking about where fits in summer after junior year and help sorting through what types of colleges are best fit (high school counselors usually help with this as well as free resources from college board, etc) for personality, interest, finances, grades, etc. They do need to do their own thinking about who they are and what they want and write their own essays but an adult (or friend) reading the essay and helping them think through it and check for minor edits, is totally fine. We helped my older kid a lot to figure out deadlines and think about/brainstorm and edit essays (not writing them for her) and submitting transcripts etc and she is a fully functional college student who is getting a ton out of college, straight As, and very little help managing paperwork, deadlines etc. the younger one is needing some scaffolding also (so intimidating to start the process) but with each step getting more and more confidence and independence. 

My application process to college back in the 80s was much like yours, but looking back, I really could have used some input from my parents. I agree that parents shouldn't run the whole show. My kids are 22 and 26, the youngest is set to graduate undergrad next month and the oldest is in grad school. I put them in charge of their application process and getting their letters of rec, but we did check in to be sure stuff was getting done and offered test prep and essay help if they wanted it (son wanted zero of it, daughter did test prep). We did tour schools with them and asked a lot of questions kids might not think to ask. We probed our kids about what they wanted out of a school, both in terms of academics and environment. We related our own experiences and what we would have done differently. Also, finances are an issue. If your kid does it all on their own, what happens if they get into a $60k a year school that offers no merit money and you don't qualify for their financial aid? Parents can help kids see the big picture and I guess I'm advocating for a middle ground. Let the kid drive it and take charge, but be there to consult and help .

I think the reality for most kids is somewhere in between hand-holding and fending for themselves. My son is a senior in HS now. I was practically uninvolved in the whole College application process (that was a pleasant surprise), but he met with his guidance counselor very frequently. At first once a month, and later once a week. In my opinion, a good guidance counselor is absolutely essential. It’s not so much that the kids can’t manage on their own - after all, they manage their class work and assignments on their own, like they will in college - it’s more that the whole process can be overwhelming and most kids will need intermediate benchmarks/deadlines, as well as some direction on where to apply. As the time draws near, your kid will be bombarded with mail, portals, testing sign ups, and who knows how many other things, all while trying to do their best in school. If the guidance counselor is not good, or is overextended, most kids will need help from a parent or adult or older sibling. Some kids, of course, are fully capable of making their own spreadsheets and checklists, but mine is not nor was I at that age. I still did fine in college, and I expect my son will too. It’s a different type of organizational skill than they are used to. Good luck!

I think that one reason parents hire writing coaches is that the number of essays required is far greater than when most of us applied to college. Yes, there is just one Common Application essay, but there are now four UC essays instead of the former two, and most of the private schools have their own set of supplemental essays. For many students, the entire process can be overwhelming. Also, because many schools are not requiring the SAT or ACT, the essay plays a bigger part in the evaluation of a candidate's qualification for acceptance. Keep in mind that reputable essay coaches do not write the essays for the students— they show them how to present their unique stories in their own voices, helping them hopefully not only get into their colleges of choice but helping them become better, more confident writers in the process.

30-ish years ago some of my classmates at Berkeley High paid people to help with college apps, but most didn't. This year some of my daughter's classmates at Alameda High paid people to help with college apps, but most didn't. My daughter did an essay-writing class through the parks and rec department over the summer, but otherwise managed it on her own. She did well, but with completely age-appropriate hiccups for a 17yo (apparently had trouble with a last minute form so didn't get in one application to one of her top choices). She's got a complicated situation in figuring out next steps right now and is getting free help from the school's college and career advisor, which I did push her to seek. I'm far less confident that her 13yo brother with ADHD will be able to do this independently. I'm a pediatrician and see such a wide variety of kids that I'm slow to pass judgement on other parents.

I'd caution you against extrapolating from "back in my day" to the current college application scene. I got into Harvard, which 30-ish years ago accepted 18% of their applicants. UCLA now accepts 12% of their applicants, Harvard typically takes 5%, and this year Harvard took 3.5%. Some of this is because kids apply to more schools, but it's also just truly harder to get into a lot of schools than it once was. It's worth having some respect for the fact that these kids are playing at a level well beyond what we had to worry about.


One more thing about the college admission process. Many schools like Berkeley High have excellent advisors, plus, I don't know whether BHS is unique in this, but there are essay reader volunteers onsite every day of the week during admissions season during lunch and after school. I have volunteered there as a reader for over 10 years, and all of the essay readers are excellent at helping students focus their essays and showing them how to best tell their own unique stories.