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 writing with tricky questions can add to the stress everyone may be feeling. Still, you get where they’re coming from.  

Here, Marilee Jones, a New York–based college admissions consultant and the author of Less Stress, More Success, weighs in on how to best 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 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 overwhelmed by how much has changed. Jones says empathy is usually the best bet. “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 a student’s trust is something you can’t do your  job without. If a parent asks this, there’s most likely a disagreement between the student and them about which school is the right school. Here, you can tell the truth and advocate for the student in the most agreeable terms possible. It could be as simple as, “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 is not always a meritocracy. Not getting accepted is often not a reflection of a student’s intelligence — it can be the result of schools prioritizing their own admissions goals. Just be honest with parents: the admissions process happens behind closed doors and none of us will ever really know what goes on behind those doors. 

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 expressive. Jones reminds parents of this and adds that no matter how a teenager is behaving, their world is wrapped up in their parents’ world. “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.”