College admissions is complicated, time-consuming and often mysterious for students, parents and counselors alike.

When you oversee hundreds of students, fielding questions from parents can be overwhelming. A frustrated or panicked parent calling or emailing with specific questions can add to the stress everyone may be feeling.

Here, Marilee Jones, a New York–based college admissions consultant and the author of Less Stress, More Success, weighs in on how best to navigate the conversation when parents ask tricky questions

Parents also sometimes need help understanding that letting the student own the application process is more helpful than getting overly involved. 

Question: How can I help my child?

Answer: Cheer them on from the sidelines.

The admissions process is like an initiation into adulthood, and the best thing parents, and even counselors, can do is help focus and energize students. “Encourage the next step . . . and the next . . . and the next, but try to avoid criticizing,” says Jones. “Otherwise, students might get nervous and freeze up.” Parents also sometimes need help understanding that letting the student own the application process is more helpful than getting overly involved.

Question: Why does the application process have to be so complicated?

Answer: It’s harder than ever to get into college.

If the last time a parent experienced the admissions process was when they applied to college, they might be astounded by how much has changed. Jones says being empathetic is usually the best approach. “It’s always a great conversation about how none of us parents worked as hard as our kids or how insane the expectations are now,” she says. Of course, if you’re a young counselor, this may not immediately translate. If that’s the case, just acknowledge your experience. It could be as simple as, “Even in the years since I applied to college, a lot has changed.”

Question: Can you convince my child to choose college X?

Answer: Unfortunately, I cannot. That would be a breach of trust. 

This is a hard one because you can’t perform your job without earning and guarding a student’s trust. If a parent asks you to try and influence their child’s school choice, they’re probably having a disagreement about which school is the right school. In this situation, you can tell the truth and advocate for the student in the most agreeable terms possible. It could be as simple as saying, “That’s a great school, but the intro classes have hundreds of students and that’s the opposite of what your son told me he is looking for.”

Question: How could they not get in?

Answer: College admissions is not always a straightforward process.

Jones reminds parents that unfortunately college admissions does not always operate like a meritocracy. Not getting accepted should not be taken as a reflection of a student’s intelligence or qualifications; rather, it can be the result of schools prioritizing their particular admissions goals. It’s best to be honest with parents: The admissions process happens behind closed doors and none of us can ever really know what goes on.

Question: Why won’t my child listen to me?

Answer: They probably are; they just aren’t showing it. 

It won’t shock anyone, least of all the parents of a high school student, to hear that teens aren’t always the most communicative. Jones reminds parents of this and adds that no matter how a teenager is behaving, their choices, goals and expectations are intimately tied to their parents’. “Most teens want to please their parents and make them proud,” Jones says. “Teenagers just can’t always get this across well, because they are still cognitively growing. Now is the time to be patient with them.”

Interview for this article was conducted in 2020.