The college admissions process has changed a lot since you were in high school, and if you’re seeing your junior or senior through test prep, college counseling and application season, you might find yourself facing a steep learning curve.

Matthew Kaberline, lead college counselor at Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, has worked both sides of the desk, first as an admissions counselor at the University of Mary Washington and Regis College and for the last six years as a high school counselor. In his time, he’s seen what students find the most challenging about the application process, as well as how parents can better empower and advocate for their child during this time. Here’s his best advice.

What’s one of the most important factors parents might be missing when it comes to the college admissions process?

It’s a far different process than when you were applying to college. And if you didn’t go to college, that doesn’t mean you can’t support your son or daughter through this process. Rather than relying on stories you hear from others, do your research and ask questions. This sets a great example for your child.  

Celebrating your child for the person they are becoming, rather than the offers of admission they receive, provides a genuine boost of support that can make a powerful difference during a stressful time.

In your experience, how can parents best support their student when the family is entrenched in college selection and applications?

I’d break this down into three specific things: communicate, support and protect. 

College talk can become the dominant topic at the dinner table during a student’s junior and senior year of high school, and often the student isn’t the one sustaining or initiating this talk. I advise parents and students to pick a specific time each week to check in on the college search. Developing a communication strategy and a plan between parents and students is important, but so is acknowledging that college shouldn’t be the sole focus of everything. 

Even as they prepare to leave high school, students often need to feel the support of the adults in their lives. At my school, we ask senior parents to write a brief note to their child about the qualities they see in them and what they’re proud of, and then to share it at a time of the parents’ choosing. Celebrating your child for the person they are becoming, rather than the offers of admission they receive, provides a genuine boost of support that can make a powerful difference during a stressful time.

One of my colleagues gave her daughter a T-shirt to wear when she was a senior. It reads, “Don’t Ask Me About College.” My students have shared horror stories with me about family members, friends, even complete strangers badgering them about their college search. Parents can help protect their teenagers by anticipating that this will happen at some point and working with them to develop a strategy to deflect the undue attention and move the conversation onward.

Parents can be their child’s biggest advocates, but sometimes this well-meaning support can go too far. Where do you see parents becoming too invested?

I’ve noticed that some parents become over-invested in looking for an angle or a “hook” to get their child into their college of choice. This search for a way to game the system can take energy away from supporting your child through the process. It’s better to redirect your energy toward helping your child conduct a meaningful, personalized college search and prepare an application that’s true to themselves.

The college search process is not your final exam in parenting.

In the same vein, some aspects of the application process are probably better left to counselors. When do you recommend parents take a step back?

Parents may need to take a step back when it comes to advocating too much for their child or even completing the application for them. Counselors attempt to get to know students and will, within their high school’s process, advocate for them, whether that’s through letters of recommendation, school report forms or other means. Colleges want to hear from counselors and teachers because they can shed light on the student in the context of the school community and classroom with authenticity and institutional knowledge. A call or letter of recommendation from a parent is often not as useful. If you’d like to share your reflections on your child with their counselor though, feel free to do so. This can be especially helpful if there have been significant challenges the counselor might otherwise not know about.

Any final important tips for parents?

One of my mentors loved to say to parents that the college search process is not your final exam in parenting. I think that line is quite fitting. Parents put immense pressure on themselves to provide a clear path through this process, but that’s not realistic and it doesn’t represent what life is like. The best thing you can do is to help your child be true to themselves throughout this process.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.