Being the parent of a teenager applying to college is a massive job.

It’s most likely the biggest — and most expensive — decision of their life so far, and they will probably need help 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 without overwhelming can be tricky. Here is some expert guidance on how to balance helping your child without overstepping throughout the process.

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Test Prep

Ultimately, students must take the SAT® and ACT® alone, but 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,” Velasco says. She suggests encouraging your teen to become familiar with the questions and take practice tests. If scores are falling notably short, 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 tests until they achieve a certain score, but Denise Pope, cofounder of Challenge Success at Stanford University, suggests sitting for them no more than twice. After that, the differences in scores are typically too small to make any real difference. 

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

The Essay

Students largely agree that essays are the most stressful part of applying to college. They’re also incredibly personal, so it’s often best to let your child come to you for help. They might ask you to brainstorm ideas with them, edit down an essay that’s too long or proofread to check for typos. Some parents may want 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 it for them. Instead, offer tactical advice and feedback so the final version is truly in their words. Sometimes students don’t want their parents to read their essay. If this happens with your child, then 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 investment it is. 

She suggests parents immerse themselves in the financial process early on. “Determine what your family can afford, research financial aid and college costs, talk with children about what’s affordable and find colleges that offer scholarships,” she says. Once a college list is decided upon, the student can drive the next phase of the process — completing applications and writing essays.

School Choice

When acceptance letters start to roll in, there will be decisions to make. As a parent, one of the best things you can do is set your teen up with the knowledge they need. 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 any school — it’s too far away, too expensive, too big or too small — it’s fine to voice them, but at some point, you’ll want to take a step back. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is make sure your teen has everything they need to make an informed decision and then let them make it. 

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