Applying to college is a major undertaking. But being the parent of someone who’s applying to college is also a massive job.

Chances are, this is your child’s biggest — and most expensive — decision they’ve tackled so far, and they will probably need help and advice throughout the process. But how much help is enough? And how much is too much?

Ideally, you want to guide, support and even set limits, but you should not take control of the process. “It is important for the student to determine what [about the college experience] is most important to them,” says Jessica Velsaco, an independent educational consultant who owns JLV College Counseling. “Parents can help students discover what matters most to them, but they should not try to conform their child into what they think he or she should be.”

Being supportive throughout the college process without taking over can be tricky. Read on for some expert guidance on how to effectively offer the help your child needs without overstepping your boundaries.

Test Prep

Taking a standardized testthe SAT® or ACT® exam — can be one of the first steps in the application process, and many students will take it more than once. And while your child will be the one sitting for the test, making sure they have everything they need to prepare is a great way for you to help. As for what that preparation looks like, there is no formula, but many students and experts preach the same thing: moderation.

“It is important that students do not go in blind when it comes to taking the ACT and SAT exams,” Velasco says. She suggests encouraging your teen to become familiar with the questions and take practice tests. If their scores are falling notably short of their target, then consider suggesting online prep, enrolling in a class or hiring a tutor for one-on-one help. 

Your instinct may be to encourage your child to retake the test until they achieve a certain score, but Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success at Stanford University, suggests taking them no more than twice. After that, the differences in scores are typically too small to make a significant difference. 

If you think your child should sit for both the SAT and ACT tests, Caroline Pirozzolo, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, urges you to consider whether both are truly necessary. She took both and, in retrospect, sees it was overkill. “Since nearly every school accepts both the SAT and ACT exams now,” she explains, “decide early on which test you like best and stick with prepping for that one.”

The Essay

The majority of students agree that writing their college essay is the most stressful part of the application process. What’s more, the personal statement is just that — deeply personal — so it’s often best not to impose on your child but rather to let them come to you for help. They might ask you to brainstorm ideas with them, edit down an essay that’s too long or simply proofread a final draft to check for typos. Some parents may be tempted to take a heavy hand when it comes to writing the essay — especially if their child isn’t a strong writer. Try to resist the urge to substantially edit or rewrite their work. Instead, offer tactical advice and feedback so the final version captures the essence of who they are and is written in their voice. If your child would prefer that you not read their essay, respect their wishes but suggest that they consult a friend, teacher or other trusted source that can offer feedback.

Financial Aid

Between grants, scholarships, work-study and federal and private student loans, there is a lot to know about financial aid — and even more paperwork to fill out. This is an area where you can be extremely helpful to your child.

Debbie Schwartz, cofounder of Road2College, says parents should treat college like the significant investment it is, which means they should immerse themselves in the financial process early on. “Determine what your family can afford, research financial aid and college costs, talk with your child about what’s affordable and find colleges that offer scholarships,” she says. Once your student has finalized their college list, they can drive the next phase of the process — completing applications and writing essays.

School Choice

When acceptance letters start to roll in, it can be equal parts excitement and confusion as important decisions must be made. As a parent, one of the best things you can do is listen to your teen and make sure they have the knowledge they need to make thoughtful, informed decisions. Help evaluate financial aid packages and calculate total costs, seek out additional information or objective opinions and plan second visits to campuses.

If you have specific concerns about a particular school — it’s too far away, too expensive, too big or too small — it’s fine to raise them, but ultimately your role is  to listen to what your child thinks and be a sounding board for any concerns they might have. If you’ve done your part to ensure your student has everything they need to make an informed decision, then let them make it — and you can both celebrate a job well done. 

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ACT® is a trademark registered by ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site. 

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2019 and 2020.