College planning guide for parents: How to help with applications

Around the country, high school seniors are awaiting the last round of college decisions — news that will allow them to plan the next step in their academic endeavors.

But as one round of college admissions ends, another begins. High school juniors and parents, you are now on deck.

The news that the FBI recently filed charges against 50 people, including parents, coaches, and independent college consultants, with accusations of elaborate cheating and bribery schemes aimed at getting the children of the rich and famous into elite universities has added a layer of anxiety to what was already a fraught experience for many.

College cheating scandal: Admissions process under scrutiny

"The college admissions process rivals potty-training as my least favorite developmental milestone," Chicago-area mother Ruth Schoenmeyer told TODAY Parents. "It has taken up far too much of my family's psychic energy over the past year."

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Is there is a way to get through the college admissions process in a sane and healthy way?

It's possible, says psychologist Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard University Graduate School of Education professor and the faculty director for its Making Caring Common Project . But here's the catch: Parents must be willing to do some work of their own — and he doesn't mean researching colleges for their children or emailing admissions officers on their behalf.

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Instead, in Making Caring Common's recently-released "Turning the Tide II" report, Weissbourd and his colleagues recommend prioritizing concern for others instead of amassing personal accolades for the purpose of gaining entrance to an elite university.

Some points of action for parents as they start the process:

Keep perspective about college admissions

"One thing that is unfortunate about this whole [scandal] is that it does create even more attention to only a handful of highly selective colleges," said Weissbourd.

The stunningly low admission rates of those elite colleges and universities are not an accurate representation of college admission as a whole: According to a 2017 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , more than 80 percent of American colleges and universities admit more than 50 percent of their applicants each year.

"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of great colleges in this country," said Weissbourd. "Your chances of getting into a really good college in this country are really great."

Let the kid lead

"Parents should be child-led in this," said Weissbourd. "They should ask kids, 'How do you want me to be involved in this process?'"

Though there are aspects that parents must be involved in — namely, the financial considerations involved — he warns against parents trying to "micromanage" the process for kids by being too heavy-handed in helping them with essays or pushing them toward certain colleges more than others.

Repeat: I am not a short-order cook. "It's a child's job to learn to eat what the parents eat," says Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and the author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Instead of the all-or-nothing scenario, offer a variety of foods at mealtime: the main course, plus rice or pasta, a fruit or vegetable, and milk. This way, your child can eat just the pasta and the peas and get protein from the milk. "What a child eats over the course of a day or a week is more important than a balanced meal at one sitting," says Stephen Daniels, the chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in Aurora.

"It’s critical for parents to disentangle their own wishes from their teen’s wishes and avoid conflating their interests with their teen’s interest," asserts the report.

Practice gratitude

It would be easy to grow bitter about the college application process when reading the details about the admissions scandal or after realizing a "dream school" might not be in the cards.

The Making Caring Common team hopes parents will help remind their children that the fact that college is possible at all is a blessing for your family; in fact, only 45 percent of Americans attend a four-year college.

"Any teen or parent of a teen who is applying to a four-year college that has a strong track record of graduating students should feel grateful for this tremendous opportunity — an opportunity that a great majority of people in the world simply don’t have, and an opportunity that a staggering number of people in this country can’t afford," reads the report.

Remember that fit means more than ranking

Weissbourd referred to research by non-profit organization Challenge Success that showed that the selectivity of a college means "shockingly little," he noted, to students' later success compared to how well students connect to their campuses, wherever they go.

Avoid food fights. A healthy child instinctively knows how much to eat. If he refuses to finish whatever food is on his plate, just let it go. He won't starve.

"When students are engaged in college, they do very well," he said. "It's really much more about academic engagement and fit."

Veterans of the college application process reinforce Weissbourd's message. Dallas, Texas, mom Valerie Carstens has been through it twice, and both times, her sons were waitlisted or denied at elite universities despite possessing almost perfect scores on the ACT, rigorous transcripts, and high grade point averages.

Her older son is now a happy student at a private liberal arts college, and her younger son, a high school senior, is "ecstatic," Carstens told TODAY Parents, to be attending the University of Texas in the fall.

"You can prepare your kid for the path or the path for your kid," she said. "I choose the former. Prepare your kid. Believe in your kid."

College admissions scheme causes fury among parents

Central Florida mom of five Mandy Burkhart's oldest son is just completing his college admissions experience. She and her husband allowed their son to navigate his applications almost completely on his own.

Now that it is almost over, Burkhart told TODAY Parents she is glad she let her son take the lead. "But I was only able to do that because he is such a responsible, reliable kid. He’s fairly self-motivated and he has a pretty clear view of what works well for him as a student," she said.

Kiss and hug your spouse in front of the kids. Your marriage is the only example your child has of what an intimate relationship looks, feels, and sounds like. So it's your job to set a great standard.

In the end, "It really was mostly his ball game — he was the one who applied to colleges. We were just here to support him — and pay his deposits."

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